Divorce Mediation and the Communication Trap

Divorce Mediation and the Communication Trap By Susan Ingram

{3:06 minutes to read}

Earlier this year, one of my mediation couples was in the middle of a discussion as to how they were going to divide their financial assets. They had agreed to divide their bank and investment accounts equally and each retain their own retirement accounts. They then turned to the subject of the annual bonus the husband was scheduled to receive from his employer at the end of December.

The wife took the position that she should receive half of the bonus. The husband, on the other hand, argued that the wife was not entitled to the bonus, as it would not be payable for many months after they had legally separated. The discussion continued, basically each seeing only their own position—what I call “talking at,” rather than “talking to” each other.

Then the wife shifted her position and suggested instead that she share in the bonus only for the first 3 months of the year (that represented the period of time during which they were still living together, and right before they came to mediation). In effect, she had proposed a cut-off date, which could be a viable option for them both to discuss.

The husband, however, was so caught up in arguing his own position, he never even heard his wife’s proposal. He just continued to reiterate the same justifications. Fortunately, in my capacity as facilitator, I was able to clarify what each of them had said and thus help them move on to a meaningful and constructive conversation. Ultimately, they agreed to a 3-month cut-off for the bonus, which they believed was a “fair” time period for them both.

This type of situation happens frequently. One, or often both participants in a conversation are not paying attention to what the other is saying. Instead, they are listening selectively, to what each is predisposed to hear, and also framing their arguments even before the other has finished talking.

Obviously, that type of conversation does not foster true communication. What does is a willingness to focus solely on the other person as they speak. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they say; it does mean that you are at least open to hearing and understanding the other person’s perspective.

A funny thing can happen then—there may be an opening for a shift in the conversation, and ultimately the possibility for resolution of a long-standing controversy.

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