Whilst millions of people watched Call the Mediator, believing (or breathing a sigh of relief) that this kind of thing happens to other people, it’s a fact that in England & Wales, 42% of all marriages end in divorce and a much higher percentage of cohabitating relationships breakdown. In all, over 0.5 million people every year, face divorce or separation.
Zoe Wanamaker’s narration described as ‘arch’ by The Guardian and The Telegraph added to the sense of this being about ‘other people’ not ‘us viewers’. Twitter was blunter in its character assignation, whilst other commentators inferred that although brave, there was perhaps something ‘defective’ about the couples shown and ‘we’ would somehow behave differently.
This is an interesting point – would we? Do we? My experience as a Family Consultant suggests not. The program highlighted really well how unprepared most people are when it comes to sorting out separation. Whilst we have helped countless couples to navigate divorce and separation one thing is clear – no one ever agrees on the past, and in the absence of skill, emotions make poor bedfellows when negotiating your future.
Clearly there is great disparity between public understanding and the goals of mediation as an alternative to an expensive legal way of sorting out separation. But at least with this program there is a vehicle to close that gap. Just as our attitudes to sex and relationships have developed positively with the introduction of sex education, discussion and popular culture – so too will our knowledge and understanding of how to end a relationship without it being a train wreck that damages kids and takes years to get over.
Missing from the debate and the reason mediators have such a hard job, is the idea that mediation is a skill – and not just for the mediators. Participants too need knowledge of the rules and an understanding of how you negotiate (yes Peter you do have to provide a financial disclosure). Think about it from a business perspective – a company would not send a representative to negotiate a business deal without any prior negotiation skills training. So why would you gamble your future without learning how to negotiate?
If you’re going to use mediation or any other dialogue-based negotiation to sort out separation or divorce – here are our top 7 skills you’ll need to brush up on to succeed.
Prepare emotionally – if you are still processing the raw emotions of shock and anger at the breakdown of the relationship you are in no position to negotiate. Take a few months to work with a divorce coach or counsellor to get yourself into a steady state where you can focus on the future not dissect the past.
Stay calm – to do this make a list of all the most upsetting things your ex could say to you or demands they could make. Read these statements aloud and practice hearing what they sound like. Desensitise yourself to the statements – learn to control your breathing and say; ‘just because someone says this – it doesn’t make it true or mean it will happen’. Learn the difference between trying to control what’s on the outside (leading to frustration and outbursts) vs controlling what’s going on inside (leading to self-mastery).
Don’t succumb to the pressure to answer – There are only ever three answers to a direct question: Yes, No or, I’ll think about it. In any negotiation you can buy yourself thinking time by politely thanking someone for their proposal (I’m being generous here – it may have come over as a demand) and letting them know you’ll ‘think about it’. Whenever you reject a proposal it’s a good tip to ensure you have an alternative to put forward in order to keep the dialogue going.
Be flexible in your thinking – this is a tough one because most of us are entrenched in our thinking habits. The start point for cracking this is to understand that an agreement that is acceptable to both of you (rather than your preferred agreement) is preferable and the goal of the negotiation. Worrying about whether something is fair or equal or just can waste a lot of time because nobody ever agrees on what ‘fair’ is. Ask yourself – does what is being proposed get me some or most of what’s important to me. You won’t get everything – ever. So if you start negotiating hoping to persuade someone round to your proposal you’ll be destined to fail. Watch out for common thinking distortions that will stop you making agreements.
Treat everyone with respect and don’t interrupt – its maybe a little obvious but a bit of courtesy goes a long way. Avoid insulting comments, raising your voice or pointing fingers. These behaviours trigger defensiveness in the other person. Instead, you want everyone to stay calm and rational, in order to focus on solving the problems you came to discuss.
Use “I” statements. These are sentences that start with “I feel…” or “I prefer…” or “I have another idea…” Avoid “You” statements, such as “You always…” or “You never…” “You” statements also trigger defensiveness in the other person. Just use “I” statements to convey your own perspective, rather than assumptions or criticisms of the other person’s perspective. Remember, all you need to do is to reach an agreement. You don’t need to try to change the other person’s way of thinking (which is unlikely anyway).
Take a break – don’t be a drama queen and storm out. Its fine to get a surge of emotion – but don’t let one surge dictate the entire session – it’s a waste of time and money. Take a break, calm yourself and go back in…. repeat as necessary.
Learning to negotiate is a journey and one that if you have kids will stand you in good stead for a co-parenting relations for the future. Perhaps by having watched the programme people will be better understand mediation and alternative ways for sorting our separation and be better placed to navigate divorce if they turn out to be one of those half a million each year. We can’t stop divorce, but at amicable we believe we can help people through it with less damage to them or their children.