During the last nine years that I have exclusively practiced divorce mediations, I’ve come to easily recognize words that can trigger positive and negative emotions. A single word or phrase can mean the difference between an adversarial, obstinate stance and dialogue that is productive and promotes progress. Following is a look at positive and negative words and how they can be constructive or destructive to the mediation process.
Need vs Want
Needs are the necessities to live and function, such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, medical care and education. Wants are non-essentials that may improve or perpetuate a certain lifestyle, such as luxury cars and vacation homes. I find that explaining the difference between needs and wants is essential when the parties are stuck on their position. With the understanding that every couple has a unique financial and family situation in the moment and in the future, keeping the parties focused on their needs vs wants provides clarity throughout the negotiation process.
Ours vs Mine
When a couple has children together, the children should naturally be referred to as “ours.” A party who says “my daughter” or “my son” is devaluing the other parent’s importance in the child’s life. Consciously or not, that parent is insinuating that the other parent is insignificant to the co-parenting relationship. Understandably, this scenario often results in the other parent becoming defensive and possessive. The use of “mine” when referring to material possessions can also cause friction but is not always as offensive as when used to refer to children. Regardless of how it is being said, in mediation it is of the utmost importance to reinforce the use of ours vs mine.
Telling someone to relax, even when said with good intentions, almost always has the opposite effect. “Relaxing on command is physiologically impossible if ‘the body is already too acutely stressed to turn it around,’ ” says Wendy Mendes, a professor of emotion at the University of California, San Francisco and a researcher on stress. “While the body responds rapidly to stress, returning to a relaxed state can take 20 to 60 minutes,” she says.¹ When one or both parties are so stressed or anxious that they are creating a roadblock, I find it most effective to call for a break. Upon returning to the table, I give each person the opportunity to voice the specifics of what has caused their distress, so a productive discussion can ensue.
Think/Suggest vs Know/Insist
When someone makes a suggestion or says they “think XYZ,” they are showing flexibility and a willingness to consider other ideas. On the other hand, when a party makes a statement including the words “I know” or “I insist,” they are basically saying they are the authority and that the issue at hand is non-negotiable. If the insistent party is not willing to budge, I ask them to explain why they feel so strongly about getting exactly what they want. By dissecting the issue I am able to revisit needs versus wants and lead the way to an agreement or compromise.
Saying sorry often doesn’t have the intended effect – forgiveness. An apology that does not acknowledge responsibility for cause and effect, or remorse and regret for actions taken, may feel empty and placating. For someone to genuinely express that they are sorry, they need to take ownership of why what they did was bad, wrong or hurtful.
Fair vs Unfair
In mediation, a sense of fairness is achieved when compromise results in an acceptable agreement or arrangement. When a party states that something is unfair, it usually means they feel they are not being heard or respected. To avoid this scenario I have the parties prioritize what is most important to them (separate from needs) and suggest that they let go of their lesser wants.
A Good Agreement
In my introduction at the start of each mediation, I tell the parties that in order to reach a “meeting of the minds” both sides need to be open-minded, flexible and willing to let go of some of the items that are not as important to them.
I’ve heard some people say that if everyone leaves mediation unhappy it’s a good agreement. I disagree. I strongly believe that if each person got some of the things that are most important to them, including both needs and wants, the mediation was a success. When both sides compromise and reach an agreement it is a win-win.
After spending the last nine years exclusively practicing family mediations, following an 18-year career in litigation, my expertise in managing positive communication enables me to work through difficult conversations and overcome deadlocks, resulting in agreeable outcomes.