She sits on my office couch and speaks as if she is not even a participant in this drama, weeping and angry: This divorce is his idea, not mine.
I understand her tears. Her marriage has fallen apart, and facing that reality is bleak. But this is our second mediation session, and I must swallow my impatience as she resists my efforts to move her past this focus on her misery, and talk of a plan for the future. Although reluctant to indulge her mood, I know she needs more time, so I continue to listen, and I hear:
If only he would be reasonable . . . .
Somehow I need to make him see . . .
I never wanted this, so it’s up to him to . . .
I want to tell her to stop howling at the moon, but remain silent.
Her words are like those often spoken by people whose lives have been tipped off balance, and are desperately seeking to regain equilibrium. The words are actually a plea for change. But it is the other who is expected to alter their ways.
So, is it possible to shift, even reverse, another’s point of view? Maybe so.
Here is her story which illustrates the point:
This divorcing husband and wife were negotiating financial issues. He was adamant about only paying support in the amount his attorney told him a Court would likely order, not a penny more. She insisted, and probably rightly so, that he could well afford to provide a greater sum, which would allow her and the children to remain living in their current home.
On the other hand, awash in her own misery, the wife had made no effort to shield their teenagers from the conflict in which she and her husband were engaged, and had portrayed their father as the bad guy who was forcing them to move. Not surprisingly, his relationship with the children was seriously eroded. He was hurt and incensed and blamed her for their alienation.
They were at an impasse, and at the end of our last session, both walked off in a storm of irritation.
The next morning, when I returned a call from the wife, she reverted to her now familiar refrain: if only he would be reasonable and provide enough for us to stay here just for the next four years, the kids wouldn’t resent him so.
This time, wanting to keep her engaged, but moving forward, I asked for and received her permission to offer some advice: Sometimes when parties are deadlocked, if one person acts, unilaterally, takes even a small positive step, it can cause an important shift in the relationship. Can you think of something you might do to break this logjam?
Her silence suggested she was finally ready and had heard me.
The next weekend, without requesting anything in return, she invited the husband to dinner with the children, and in their presence she apologized for having unwisely and thoughtlessly placed them in the middle of their parent’s conflict. She said she and their father were both struggling to create good outcomes. He relaxed his stiff posture and by the time dessert was served, tensions visibly eased.
Will this magically bring about the hoped for solution? Hard to say. But there will be an important change in the nature of their conversation, of that I’m sure. There are many bargaining chips still on the table. Talk will recommence. Impasse is averted.
Giving up on trying to persuade another to change, when a dialog has broken down, and taking a relatively small forward step oneself, without requiring anything in return, often generates a positive shift in another’s perspective, and a new conversation can begin.