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Reducing the Scope of Disagreement

Reducing the Scope of Disagreement
By Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.

One of the pitfalls of negotiation is that disputants often exaggerate their differences so that they think they are farther apart than they really are. The wife says, with great anger, "I have told him that I need $2,000 a month for the kids, and I will not accept any less just because he is selfish and tight." The husband replies, "Don't tell me about selfish! All you think about is yourself. I offered you $1,700 a month, and I will be damned if I'll give you a cent more!" To this hostile exchange I would expect a mediator to reply as follows: "Well, I am relieved to see that your positions are so close to each other. You are only $300 apart, and you are more in agreement than you think. Now how can we bridge the small gap that remains in your two viewpoints?" What the mediator has done is filtered out the hostile messages and the personal attacks, emphasized the commonality of position, and opened the way for compromise and negotiation. In time, we hope that couples will begin to adopt this more neutral way of addressing issues. Most couples settle down and begin to imitate this neutral, solution-oriented way of discussing issues. We teach mediators to look for ways that they can restate the differences of the couple to emphasize that they agree more than they disagree. The mediator in turn teaches this skill to the couple. This is one of the long-term benefits of mediation because it sets up a pattern for couples to be able to resolve disputes themselves after the divorce is final.

You can help the mediation succeed by adopting this stance as soon as possible. Before you disagree with your wife, reduce the scope of the disagreement to its smallest possible expression. People who are upset tend to "awfulize" a disagreement. That is, they present it as bigger and as more abstract than it really is. She says, "I am willing for the children to stay with you on weekends, but I want them to sleep in their home on school nights so I can be sure that they are ready for school the next day." This makes you angry, because you feel that it implies that you are not capable of taking care of your children and seeing them off to school prepared for the day. So your first impulse is to say something like, "I'm sick of your insinuations that I am not as good a parent as you are, and I'm tired of you trying to control everything and cut me out as a parent. I am not going to take it!"

Were you to say such a thing, you could expect the mediator to intervene with a neutrally reframed proposition such as, "I am glad to see that the two of you agree about the weekends. Now let's talk about how we ensure that both of you are involved with the children during the week as well." You can save the mediator the trouble by altering the way you respond to your wife: "I appreciate your concern that the children go to school prepared each day. But I can also help them do that. It is very important to me to have some overnight time with them during the week, so why don't we talk about how they can spend one or two nights with me during the week and how I can reassure you that I will have them ready for school in the morning?"

Note how this alternative manner of expressing your viewpoint is actually much more potent than your initial accusatory response. It maintains a tone of respect, acknowledges her legitimate fears, and seeks to reassure her at the same time it forcefully asserts your own legitimate needs. Study the way the mediator reframes the issues and try to imitate her.

Managing Anger

The expression of anger is a normal part of divorce discussions. But having recognized it as normal, we nevertheless seek less rather than more. You may be angry about issues related to the marriage and its ending, and you may be angry when your wife takes positions you find unfair or says things you regard as insensitive. But blowing up, yelling, or raging weakens you rather than strengthens you and slows the mediation process. It may also scare your wife right into the office of her lawyer. Available research on negotiation suggests that threats and attempts at intimidation almost never move the other side in the direction you wish and almost always polarize the dispute even more. If your wife gets angry and rages at you, you need to stay calm and cordial. Let the mediator calm her down or point out that her behavior is not helpful. Although mediators are trained to be impartial, you benefit and get the mediator working for you when you do not become the problem client.

Mediation is not the place to vent your anger or the other strong feelings associated with divorce. Divorce counseling may be useful and your therapist may be useful. But mediation is for negotiating, and negotiation objectives are not advanced by histrionics. If you begin to feel that you just cannot sit on your feelings anymore, ask the mediator for a brief caucus with each of you and use the opportunity to tell the mediator what you are feeling. That way you don't arouse your wife to further indignation and anger. A competent mediator will hear you out and help you to calm down so you can resume mediation. However, it is up to you to keep your anger on a tight leash.

Searching for Options

Mediation is a problem-solving approach to negotiation. The mediator will be trying to convert your issues into problems to be solved, and then try to help you develop the best options for solving those problems. The problems of parenting are posed as a series of questions. How do you develop a method of making decisions for the children? How do you create a schedule that meets the needs of each of you and the children? The economic issues are also restated as problems to be solved. How do you distribute family income so that all family members can thrive? How do you increase income and/or reduce expenses to balance expenses and income? In all these questions, there is neither a single answer nor are there infinite possibilities. The mediator will push you each to define a broad enough range of options so that you can find common ground. The mediator will also help you evaluate the options. Sometimes she will suggest that you consult outside experts on how well one option works as compared to another. For example, a child psychologist can help you evaluate how long a young child can go without seeing her mother or her father without suffering undue anxiety. Children's sense of time changes with age, and if the issue is how a child at a particular stage of development can manage a challenge, the expert will provide help in evaluating the alternatives.

Negotiation requires that needs be assessed and options developed and evaluated. Whether the issue is the psychological need of the child or how to manage a tax concern, the mediator will either have expertise of his own or will suggest an expert consultant. Most experienced mediators have developed their list of consultants over time, and it is a good idea to use those people when ex

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