By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

While attitude is the key factor in all relationships (see our article called Good or Bad: Does it matter in divorce?) breakdown in communication is the part that is visible. Take a divorcing or divorced couple, add intense emotion, a pinch of sensitive issues and you may have the proverbial pot boiling over. Here are some basic tools to smooth the way:

A. For the person wanting to communicate: (1) Make your intention clear (i.e., “I want to talk to you about plans for this Saturday …”). This may deflect the listener who is used to reading between the lines for an agenda or the “true” meaning. (2) Be specific. And accurate! This can limit options for de-railing the conversation. (3) Be kind (or at least “civil”) and keep your focus on your message. A tone or attitude can bury the information that you want heard.
B. For the listener: (1) Give the speaker your full attention. Important information can be missed due to poor listening and/or distractions and can end up pushing buttons that close off communication. (2) Don’t interrupt. If you start answering before the message is delivered, communication has just turned into a power struggle. You will have your chance to respond and should expect your message will be heard as well. (3) Use questions to make sure you understand what is being said. Mind reading can be destructive – and incorrect. Make a summary statement of what you heard if you are unsure of the intent. In this way communication can be self-correcting. If you do understand, let the other person know.
C. For the overall process: When the communication is about a “problem,” the process can be even more challenging. (1) Remember; if you are bring up the problem, OWN IT! If it wasn’t your problem, you wouldn’t be bringing it up. (2) Avoid blaming. Often your partner or ex-partner may be used to putting up defenses (based on history). Try to define the problem clearly before offering solutions. People are generally more cooperative when the problem-solving is a joint effort. (3) Avoid the use of “never” and “always” because they tend to convey an accusation – watch how fast the walls will go up.

Listening is not the same as agreeing. By providing plenty of space for the other person to say what they need does not send a message of “giving in” or “conceding.” Listening is the beginning of a conversation that can actually lead to productive result. Communication is a shared responsibility. If one person does their part in earnest, the other is encouraged to do the same.

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