People often ask how the Collaborative team is able to support divorcing couples to work through their conflict. As a divorce coach, working with trained collaborative attorneys and other professionals, I believe that one of the keys is helping people understand the power of understanding (and often empathy), as an alternative to the power of coercion.
It’s hard to come to a divorce conversation, with attorneys at the table, and listen to your spouse with whom you disagree. How easy it is to become defensive, how tempting to criticize, or simply ignore what your spouse is saying. You may fear that if you understand your spouse, your own position will be weakened, or your own sense of the strength of your own view will be diminished.
So we work to help you make the distinction between understanding and agreeing. We often say you can understand someone fully without having to accept the validity of anything that they are saying. You don’t need to agree with the other, but you can understand what he or she is saying to you. This actually is a giant and liberating step forward to be able to move through a disagreement. It runs counter to the way in which we generally think about our conflicts. It can feel like a big shift to recognize that two views can simultaneously exist, and that they do not cancel each other out. Instead there is the possibility of an expansion of understanding, especially if both of you are willing to do this for each other. And that mutual understanding paves the way for a respectful dialog about the decisions that you will be making during your divorce.
This sounds simple, but it really isn’t. It takes a strong intention, and the commitment to the effort. When you really step into someone else’s shoes, you may feel quite vulnerable, especially if you are in conflict. When you are able to express and demonstrate to your spouse that you understand their view (even if you don’t agree with it), you may feel even more vulnerable. It can feel like the act of understanding and the demonstration of that understanding to your spouse is risking giving up your position or that it might result in your spouse believing that even though you haven’t said it, that you agree he or she is right.
Another problem is that we believe that our own view is so accurate that if your spouse were to actually understand it, that it would be inevitable that she or he will conclude that their own view is wrong. “If the other person just really heard and understood me, of course they would agree with me.” It is hard to accept that a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong. This black and white thinking causes conversations to fall into a win-lose battle.
So let’s imagine that you and your spouse commit to listen for understanding, not necessarily agreement. It can be disappointing to feel that your spouse now has conveyed his understanding, but has not taken the obvious next step to surrender his or her view or agree that you are right. Right and wrong has a huge hold over all of us, especially when we are in a conflict. Holding two conflicting views simultaneously is not only intellectually challenging, but emotionally is even harder because we are so conditioned to believe that there is one right and one wrong in almost every conflict.
So how do we help? We know that it takes courage for you to authentically attempt to listen carefully in a new way, to step into your spouse’s shoes to understand, and to express your understanding without necessarily agreeing. We know it also takes strength to listen to your spouse’s understanding of what you may say, without assuming that he or she is now convinced that you are right, and he is wrong. We appreciate how hard it is to make this effort without knowing where it will lead. We may encourage you to push beyond your comfort zone, but we respect your ability to know what is possible for you. If you have been someone who always gives in, or accommodates, we will encourage you to strengthen your voice to speak your truth. At the same time, we will honor the realities of both you and your spouse to keep the lines of communication open. We may help you explore your version of “The Truth” as well as your spouse’s. Our goal is to keep the process moving forward in a balanced way, to reach your agreements with mutual understanding. Imagine, when your divorce is over, being able to understand your former spouse’s perspective, without feeling that you have to give up your own. This is one step toward a healing in your post-divorce relationship that will pay dividends for years to come.
Collaboratively written by Ann Buscho, Catherine Conner, and Gary Friedman
- Ann Buscho, PhD is a Collaborative Divorce Coach and psychologist in San Rafael.
See more at www.drannbuscho.com
- Catherine Conner is a mediator and Collaborative Attorney in Santa Rosa.
See more at http://www.clr829.com/
- Gary Friedman is an attorney-mediator, trainer, and writer.
See more at http://understandinginconflict.org/
- photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.