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Avoiding a War of Words

When less is more in divorce

By Felicia Soleil, Attorney/Mediator

divorce mediator and family law attorney located in Gig Harbor

“It’s important to make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.” - Barack Obama

How can a divorcing couple with a high level of interpersonal conflict learn to negotiate the terms of their divorce while also attempting to structure a plan for constructive co-parenting when all they do is argue?

As a divorce mediator, it is apparent to me the couples who have done extensive work in counseling prior to divorce. They use strategies such as active listening, providing feedback on what they think they heard, using “I” statements rather than “You” statements, and effective use of pausing and managing  their emotions to remain civil and respectful during negotiations.

Couples who don’t possess these skills frequently present in mediation with an enormous amount of blame, “all or nothing” thinking, and heightened emotional responses. Rather than taking responsibility for their part in the conflict, one or both parties seek to out-blame the other and focus on the past, rather than focusing on problem-solving and looking to the future. Among other things, this can get needlessly expensive.

If you find yourself in this situation, here are some tips:

1) Learn to manage your emotions. This does not mean to disregard your emotions. It means knowing how and when it is appropriate to express them (preferably not in front of the other party in a way that will antagonize a similar response).

2) Practice flexible thinking. Drop the defensive rigidity. Be willing to explore options toward problem-solving.

3) Utilize BIFF when communicating. Employ using BIFF (Brief, Informative, Firm and Friendly) in your communications with your ex if you find constructive dialogue is absent. This is a simple technique developed by Bill Eddy, a prominent pioneer in the field of conflict resolution skills.

For example, if you need to ask your co-parent to change the dropoff time for the next exchange of children, you don’t need to engage in a detailed explanation coupled with personal innuendos and microaggressions. Nor do you need to respond in kind if those issues color a communication from your co-parent.

Instead, how about this: “Hi. I need to attend a work meeting on Friday, so I won't be able to pick up the kids from school and get them to your place by 4pm. (Informative) Please let me know by 5pm tomorrow if you can pick up the kids instead. Otherwise, I’ll get my sister to do that for me. (Firm) Hope the rest of your week goes well. Thanks! (Friendly)

If you have both agreed to exercise BIFF, the response would ideally be: “No problem. I’ll pick up the kids from school. (Brief and informative) I can’t always do this due to my own work obligations, but I have no meetings this Friday, so I’m happy to help. (Firm and Friendly)

Of course, if the response to the request is not ideal and filled with accusations, an unwillingness to help, or takes advantage of the request in a negative way, your reply can again employ BIFF as follows: “Thanks for getting back to me. (Friendly) I’ll just have my sister do the transportation for me so the kids will be there on time.” (Informative and Firm) The “Brief” part is that this is all you need to say. Period.

This solves a problem without participating in a potentially abusive and extended exchange triggered by a simple request. You aren’t inviting it, nor are you reacting to it. Negative communication only keeps you mired in the conflicts of the past and serves no useful purpose other than to vent your own frustrations on deaf ears. It becomes a vicious cycle.

As Jeff Daly said, “Two monologues do not make a dialogue.”

Manage emotions, problem-solve and use BIFF to help get you there!

Felicia Soleil is a divorce mediator and family law attorney located in Gig Harbor. She helps her clients in achieving resolutions that foster both a compassionate ending to their union and a healthy new beginning so they can focus on moving on, rather than simply moving out. Felicia can be reached at 253.853.6940. All consultations are strictly confidential and currently conducted by appointment via Zoom or phone.

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