Differences of opinion are to be expected in divorce mediation. How these differences are handled is what really counts. Mediation is an agreement-reaching process that typically goes through several stages on the way to reaching a fair and lasting agreement. This post addressesconstructive conflict as a component of mediation.
There are at least two types of conflict that can crop up in mediation: conflict over data or information, which is also known as cognitive conflict, and conflict over feelings, or affective conflict. Divorce mediation tends to focus more on the first kind of conflict, that which is related to facts or information, by reaching mutually agreeable resolutions. But, to get to that resolution, in many cases, the participants need to address some affective conflict.
Affective conflict can have a greater potential to derail a productive mediation if it is not skillfully managed. Sometimes, one party may seek to review relationship history and to assign blame for a particular outcome. The blaming perspective is rarely productive. This does not mean that feelings have no value in mediation; they do. Often, it is impossible to move forward until each party has had the opportunity to state his or her truth about a matter, and to feel heard. Then, when the parties feel truly heard, they can move on to re-viewing their situation, to seeing it again with a new focus on current and future actions rather than past history.
How can a divorcing couple break out of a cycle of unproductive, affective conflict? Using a positive, forward-looking lens to view the total situation, rather than a blaming lens, is most likely to generate movement toward settlement. This positive outlook is based on using the lens of respect- respect for self, for the other, for the mediator and for the process of mediation. Mediation ground rules that emphasize respect for each participant’s humanity tend to promote development of a positive, problem-solving lens for the mediation.
Establishment of mediation ground rules is crucial. The three ground rules that I typically use are:
1. Avoid interrupting. (The other party can take notes of points he or she wishes to emphasize when it is his or her turn.)
2. Speak from your own experience. (“I-statements” convey your own feelings; the other party will have a turn to share his or her perspective later.)
3. Avoid showing signs of disrespect.
When a person feels disrespected, he or she is more likely to respond with an escalation of emotions. When feelings run high, thoughtful problem-solving becomes less likely for the rest of that session. It may be time to take a break, or adjourn for the day.
Part of a mediator’s job is to coach the parties on how to disagree without being disagreeable. By observing the ground rules based on concepts of mutual respect, mediation participants are more likely to stay in the realm of positive problem-solving that will lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
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