For many, the word “divorce” suggests images of angry interactions, family fractures, exorbitant attorney fees, and months if not years of court battles. Sadly, these images are realities for couples involved in divorce litigation. Statistics show that divorcing couples typically lose a third of their monetary net worth to litigation attorneys and frequently feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained. Statistics also show that the “win lose” mentality intrinsic to litigation increases spousal hostility and tension, and diminishes or even destroys constructive communication – all of which is virtually certain to negatively affect the ability of divorcing couples to positively and healthily co-parent.
Unlike divorce litigation, divorce mediation is a prototype for positive co-parenting. From the outset professional divorce mediators establish the centrality of constructive communication to the process of mediation. They help divorcing couples buy-in to not make disparaging and otherwise inflammatory remarks, and to otherwise speak and listen to each other with respect. Skilled divorce mediators recognize that this centrality of constructive communication not only facilitates resolution of financial issues during the divorce but also opens the way for the mediator to serve as a role model for positive co-parenting both during and after divorce.
During mediation, professional divorce mediators model constructive communication in numerous ways. They listen without interruption to gain a better understanding of the content and emotional underpinnings of what is said. They also listen reflectively, responding when appropriate to what is said with a short phrase such as “I hear you” or with a quick nod of the head, to let the speaker know he or she has been heard. Skilled divorce mediators also selectively summarize or paraphrase what’s said, to make sure that their understanding is accurate. Here’s an example:
Speaker: Since she left me, I haven’t been able to do anything – I can’t stay on top of the bills, can’t do a good job at work, and can’t really be there for my kids.
Mediator: I hear you. You said that being a single parent can be overwhelming and emotionally exhausting, and you’re having a hard time doing a good job at work and at home. Is that about right?
Professional divorce mediators also act as a role model for positive co-parenting when they reframe hostile and otherwise quarrelsome statements by restating them with neutral or positive words, so as to decrease or avoid defensive reactions. For example:
Speaker: He is a terrible father. He never spends any time with the kids.
Mediator: So are you saying that from your perspective the kids are more likely to feel loved if their father spent more time with them?
Yet another way in which skilled divorce mediators serve as a role model for constructive communication is when they validate or parrot what is said. Validating lets the speaker know that the emotions underlying what is said are legitimate in divorce situations. Parroting – when the mediator repeats one critical word or phrase of what is said – not only lets the speaker know that the emotions behind what is said are valid but also encourages further explanation. Here is an example of validating followed by an example of parroting:
Speaker: She wants all of the benefit of my working hard and making lots of money but constantly complains when I’m late to pick the kids up.
Mediator: I hear your frustration and want you to know that feeling that way is common and normal in divorce mediation.
Speaker: He can be so hostile when he talks to the kids.
Finally, professional divorce mediators function as role models for constructive communication when they demonstrate empathy. Being empathic makes known that having experienced a similar situation, the mediator can relate to how the speaker feels that way. Being empathic is not, however, the same as being sympathetic; it is not feeling sorry or pitying the speaker. It is a demonstration of care and compassion for how the speaker feels. For instance:
Speaker: I just can’t believe this is happening. I thought our marriage would last forever. Mediator: I can understand how you feel. I felt very much the same when I was going through a divorce.
All of the foregoing constructive communication skills modeled by professional divorce mediators give divorcing parents firsthand experience with ways to promote positive co- parenting. While the adversarial and accusatorial nature of divorce litigation is antithetical to parents having any opportunity to learn how to constructively communicate and promote positive co-parenting, the cooperative and collaborative nature of divorce mediation opens the way for parents to adopt the constructive communication skills required for positive co- parenting.