Communication and divorce mediation

image for divorce mediationMany marriages break down because of a lack of communication or poor communication. So if a marriage can’t last due to bad communication, how can you expect those same two people to sit in a room and come to an agreement in divorce mediation? Does a neutral third-party mediator make that big of a difference?

Yes, it does.

How a divorce mediator makes a difference

Think of any argument you may have had. Would a third person in the room have changed the dynamic, perhaps making the discussion less volatile? Probably. With a divorce mediator, you have a neutral third-party who is a trained negotiator with specific credentials. Add to those variables the fact that both you and your spouse are there with a shared goal in mind—to reach a fair settlement to end the marriage—and many of the communication obstacles experienced during your marriage are neutralized.

Those elements lay the foundation for negotiation, yet the potential to fall back into bad communication patterns exists. That’s where the skill of the mediator comes in. It’s his/her job to direct the negotiation from positional—e.g. “I want the children 50 percent of the time—to interest-based—e.g. “I want to be a good parent. If I spend less time with the kids, I’m worried they won’t like me as much and eventually won’t want to come to my house at all.”

The difference in positional versus interest-based dictates the tone of the negotiation. Positional essentially paints one party into the corner—e.g. I will only be happy/agree if I have the children exactly 50 percent of the time. Interest based—e.g. I want to have a quality relationship with my children and to be part of their lives on a regular and consistent basis—opens the door to numerous possibilities during the negotiation. For example, if exactly 50 percent does not make sense either because of the children’s or the parent’s schedules, perhaps the settlement could include additional parenting time during the week or a different schedule during summer break or during winter vacations. Or both.

That’s just one example. But the mediator can refocus the negotiation by finding out what’s important to both parties and using that as the basis of the discussion and coming up with solutions.

Besides the focus, the mediator seeks to diffuse old communication habits that circumvent discussion. For example, the parties may trigger reactions from each other just by their body language.  One person may roll his or her eyes when their spouse says something not to their liking. The mediator, as the quasi communication coach, can acknowledge the eye roll but try to convert it into a meaningful discussion.  For example, “You don’t seem to be receptive to that suggestion, can you explain why?”

Another way the mediator reads body language is to assess when a heated conversation is productive and when it is not. In a one-on-one discussion/argument during their marriage, a couple might continue to go at it even when the body language of one person is clearly not responsive. The neutral, third-party mediator can read the body language and call for a break if necessary. In 20-plus years as a mediator, it’s amazing to see how stepping away from the negotiating table and collecting your thoughts can refocus the discussion.

Another common communication trigger is when discussion sounds more like accusation.  For example:

“You never listen to what I say.”

While that may or may not be true, the accusatory nature of the statement is likely to put the other person on the defensive. A mediator might guide the spouse who made the statement to instead say something like this:

“I feel like you never listen to me.”

Rephrasing that statement gives ownership to the person who said it instead of putting it on the lap of their spouse to refute. It then becomes the feelings of the spouse who said it. It may seem like a small thing, but it can prevent stalls in communication and a “he said/she said” argument.

The mediator is the main reason why couples who could not communicate during their marriage find a way to do so during a divorce negotiation. Yet the intent of the couple divorcing is a factor as well. After all, most divorcing spouses enter into mediation because they are looking for a less contentious and cost- effective way to get divorced. By starting essentially on the same page, it creates a better platform to begin the negotiation.

So, not only is it possible for couples who could not communicate well during their marriage to do so in negotiating a divorce, but many couples leave mediation with a better understanding of how to communicate with each other going forward. Frankly, the tools and the communication skills divorcing couples develop during this process could save thousands of dollars in future legal fees as exes can now work things out without a trip to court.