I had the privilege of working with a divorced couple recently that went wildly well. I was their Divorce Coach through their Collaborative Divorce years ago. They did so many things brilliantly in this mediation that I want to share a few key components that I think will help you with your own difficult conversations. To protect anonymity I will refer to them simply as, Mom and Dad.
The Underlying Issue
This couple wanted help to work out a new parenting plan. Enough had changed that their current plan also had to change. As they presented their concerns, it became clear that something was blocking them. They couldn’t hear each other. There was static between them.
Dad is extremely busy with a very demanding business. He forgets things. Only so much will fit on his plate and he isn’t always as successful as he’d like to be, prioritizing his tasks. He often doesn’t keep agreements he’s made with Mom. This causes her to feel disrespected. In her attempts to let him know how badly this feels to her, he feels his character is maligned, so also feels disrespected. The underlying cause of their conflict was a mutual lack of respect—something that carried over from their marriage. Even though I could see that lack of respect was the root of their communication problem, it was invisible to them. It’s a forest for the trees kind of thing.
Key #1: If you are just digging yourselves in deeper with your own efforts, hire someone skilled who can help you get to the core of things. Their parenting difficulties were just a symptom of the underlying disrespect.
Even if they happened to get to some agreements around co-parenting, they probably wouldn’t/couldn’t keep them. They would fall into the same-old same-old patterns. These hard conversations are almost impossible to have without help. It’s just too painful and too dangerous to go there alone. Without help we want to just focus on the issue, “Can’t we just discuss our parenting?” Interestingly, this couple trusts me and were willing to play with a new approach.
Key #2: if what you’re doing isn’t working, be willing to try something else.
The Third Entity
I put an empty chair in front of them. This chair was to represent their relationship. I asked them to move their chairs closer to each other and look at the chair. I stood slightly behind them. I explained, “That is your relationship. It has its own hopes, dreams, goals and needs. How would you describe your relationship at this time?” They both threw out words. Fun, painful, conflicted, potential. Lack of respect showed up in its own time. It had to. It fingered into everything.
This allowed them to see their relationship in a new light. They both made apologies to the other. Mom cried when Dad admitted he hadn’t kept agreements. “I’m crying because this is the first time I’ve heard you admit to it.” Mom asked if she could put her hands on Dad’s knees, (a very respectful act). She really wanted him to hear her. “I have sooo much respect for you. Of all the men I know you are the most honorable, diligent, moral person. I know you try. I know you’re busy. I promise to do my best to always hold you with respect.”
Key #3: Be willing to apologize and own what you can.
Take it In
I asked them to pause for a few minutes to take in what they’d heard. To really hear it. To allow themselves to feel and be touched by the genuineness of the apology they’d received. To let it sink in and change them. In many ways such an apology is a sacred act.
Key #4: Honor any connection or apology as a sacred act.
Perhaps this synopsis of a mediation gone well gives you hope for your own hard conversations. A difficult conversation can seem foreboding and scary, but…if you can be with the emotions that come up while you work through, you can clear free future conversations from that baggage. I’m glad to help you facilitate yours.