How Can You Say That?
Words can float boats or sink good will. Choosing words carefully is not the small stuff, in work or life, but is particularly important in conflict conversations like divorce mediation. Have questions about what phrasing to use with clients (or other professionals) in those tricky and sticky situations? Please send me your challenges: KF@katefangermediation.com
– Please write to me if you have a question or comment – especially if you see things differently!
“I’m on the phone with a potential divorce mediation client and after we’ve spoken for a while, she asks ‘Ok, so how do I get my spouse to come to mediation/agree to meet with you?’ “
This is a very common question! When I answer, I try to cover three concepts: sequence, source, and substance. (That’s my own mnemonic device; I don’t list them to the caller.) Sequence has to do both with where the parties are in their separation/divorce conversation, as well as what I see as the sequence of convincing someone to try mediation. Source has to do with how information can sound very different depending on whom you are hearing it from. Substance is content.
Before I get to all those “s” things, a little preface: I answer my own phone, so for me, this request usually comes after we’ve been talking for a bit about how mediation works, how I work, and I’ve probably answered a bunch of administrative questions. The potential client tells me she wants to work-- or at least meet-- with me, but isn’t sure how to convince her spouse to do so. Can I advise her? [note: I’ve learned to ask whether the spouse knows the client is calling me, or calling any mediators, and also whether the spouse is already open to mediation. Sometimes the answer I get is that the spouse is not yet aware of the impending divorce(!), which takes the conversation in a different direction…] Once I hear that the spouse knows or is open, I talk about the following things:
Start at the beginning. To me, the beginning is information—that each party needs it. So I encourage the caller to have her goal be that her spouse gets the same information she’s gotten, rather than have the goal be getting the spouse to agree to start mediation with me. (If the caller wasn’t sure about the whole mediation thing before talking to me, and has in fact been encouraged by our conversation, she may understand the same thing could occur for her spouse if she/he talks to me too…) In other words, the initial goal is to get the other party simply to call me. I sometimes point out it may be easier to get the spouse to agree to a small thing, making a phone call, rather than the larger commitment of agreeing to a meeting, or even a process.
I always suggest that the potential client tell the spouse that she has spoken with me, but really try not to share any of the specific things I told her. Instead, I explain that in my experience who one hears something from can greatly affect what and how it is heard, and that this is often magnified in divorce conversations where conflict and emotions may be running high. So it’s better if the spouse hears the information directly from me, because it will get heard more clearly. In addition, I’m motivated by the feeling that it’s unlikely the potential client will repeat what I said using the same language I used, language I’ve worked hard to make professional, helpful and encouraging, without sounding like I’m empathizing to the point of taking sides.
The dangers of a client either characterizing what I’ve said, or even simply saying what a good conversation occurred, are best avoided if possible, as they may be impossible to remedy. Even (especially!) with the best intentions, the potential client may bias their spouse against me: enthusiasm for how I described the pluses of using mediation in general, or any other positive report, may be received as evidence I’m already on the first caller’s side. Even outside of the stresses of divorce, I think it’s human nature for the other party to fear I’ve been swayed in that direction. If a spouse you have never spoken with feels even a hint that you might be predisposed towards the initial caller, you may never be able to effectively establish your neutrality in their eyes (or gut). That can doom the mediation to failure before it begins.
Lastly, in my experience, it is often the spouse who is either requesting the divorce, or more ready to proceed towards it, who makes the initial call to inquire about mediation. To give this person, and the mediation, the best chance of succeeding, encourage her to think about all these ideas as a way to consider her spouse’s perspective on things beginning with this early stage of the process.