Working with parents who are going through separation and divorce is not cruisy. Some people call it the "pointy end of the stick" when it comes to Mediation. The conflict is high, the stakes are higher.
Don't get me wrong - there are thousands of parents out there that are working together, minimising conflict, making arrangements that suit their children, and being co-parenting superstars. But they don't need a neutral third party to get there, so those are not the parents who are walking through my office doors every day.
The clients I see are struggling to see eye to eye.
They are wounded, and struggling to heal.
They are afraid, and struggling to trust.
Their communication might be all about self-protection, or tending more towards rage and retaliation, but neither end of the spectrum is helpful when you're trying to negotiate a parenting agreement.
In the beginning, I had two ways of recommending that parents work through (or rather, bottle up?) their communication issues:
Treat the other person like a stranger - act as though you have no history together at all. Pretend that this is someone you just met, and use your normal level of politeness to get through each interaction.
Treat your conversations like a business meeting - be brief, get straight to the point, present the facts without emotion, negotiate as if you could just as calmly walk away with no deal.
Just be civil.
There were several problems with this. You're probably already thinking of a few!
Most of us are not Hollywood actors who can turn their memories on and off at the flick of a switch.
How are we going to pretend that nothing ever happened between us?
How can I negotiate calmly when my relationship with my children is at stake?
Civility would work for a moment, holding the conflict at bay, until a school uniform wasn't returned to one house, or one parent introduced a new partner into the mix. Then Civility couldn't hold up under the pressure. The value of Civility could not outweigh the pull of Justice, or the responsibility of Protection, or the heaviness of a Broken Heart.
I was wrong.
I've changed - and my work has changed.
These days, instead of giving my clients permission to disconnect from difficult people and circumstances, I encourage them to lean into the growth and maturity that come with navigating them well.
Civility will do while you're healing, but let's not make it the final destination. It is certainly a better choice than the sharp, angry, destructive alternatives, but it will only get you a short way down the road before understanding and grace are required.
The model of Conflict Coaching that I use asks my clients to see situations from every angle. The story we tell ourselves about conflict is often missing details about our own flaws and the validity of the other person's experiences. But when we question ourselves about these unspoken details, it can change our perspective of them, and of ourselves.
Here are a few steps we can all take towards managing difficult relationships in a healthy way:
Understanding. Endeavour to understand your separate and combined histories; remember that you have both endured the highs and lows of life, and that together you have learned valuable lessons. What is most important to each of us? How do we each wish to be perceived? What are the needs that we are each looking to meet?
Humility. I have made mistakes. Big ones. So I can expect other people to make mistakes. My response to your mistakes should not be measured by the way others have treated me, but against the way I would have liked to be treated. How would I have wanted my own needs to be met? How would I have wanted to be heard? What did I need to hear when I was in the wrong?
Purpose. When you go into this interaction, what is the greater purpose behind it? Happy, secure children? A peaceful home life? Avoiding family court? Being a good example to your little ones? Living out your highest values to the best of your ability? Remind yourself of your reasons: "I want to do this well, because ... "
Empathy. When you seek to understand someone else's experience and perspective, acknowledging that you are also learning as you go, and focusing on the bigger picture of why you are here ... empathy often arrives. Empathy for yourself, and empathy for your counterpart.
What could your co-parenting relationship look like if Love and Kindness were the aim, instead of a civil, business-like detachment?
I always need to acknowledge that there will be parents reading this who feel like they're the only one doing the work, the only one watching their words and absorbing the conflict and poor behaviour of the other parent every day. And that may be true. And it might be a long time before you experience understanding and empathy from the other side. It might be never.
But I'm willing to bet that if you work through each of these steps towards empathy, and you let your understanding, humility, purpose, and empathy, guide you through those difficult conversations - things will change.
Your interactions with your children's other parent will change.
Your relationships with your children will change.
Your perspective on your own journey will change.
The people on the outside will see the change that's taking place on the inside, and it will change them too.
* If you are experiencing, or have experienced, family violence, I am not suggesting that you place yourself in a vulnerable or unsafe position by opening yourself up to close relationship with a perpetrator. Please be safe. Please ask for help from your mediator and from a specialist family violence worker. And please know that your perspective, your values, and your purpose, are powerful xx
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