Tag Archives: Separation

Defusing Arguments

Why argue? The instinct is to try and persuade the other person you are right and they are wrong. In return they are likely to try and persuade you they are right, so the debate begins. Sometimes issues are clarified and a shared understanding emerges, that is a good outcome, but often the opposite happens.  Commonly the dispute is more about the relationship and not wanting to back down, than reaching a shared understanding. Sometimes the original issues are forgotten or changed as the conflict mounts, especially if the debate becomes personal (“that is so typical of you, you don’t give a stuff about anyone . . .’)

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Once the dispute gets personal, the scene is set for the conflict to escalate and damage  or even destroy the relationship. Sometimes the reason for the conflict IS the relationship, which may involve toxic dynamics that cause endless conflict. The problem is the conflict, not the apparent issue, you know this for sure if there are constant or repeated arguments about anything and everything.

So the argument is the outlet for the conflict, which has a life of its own. One person may try to stop the argument, but the other may block this, arguing relentlessly, expanding the area of disagreement, dragging up old grudges and inventing new ones. Mediators know about conflict, they start where the conflict is, not with the presenting disagreement, as that is often incidental.

How can you defuse arguments?

Well, first of all start where the other person is. Listen to them, understand what they are saying, show that you understand by summarising to them what they told you. Then ask them a question about it, make them think, perhaps they might not be exactly right? Always focus on the issues and speak calmly and precisely, preferably don’t sound as though you are laying down the law. Better to be questioning as people always believe things they work out for themselves. Carefully avoid personal attacks and adopt logical explanatory reasoning, never blowing things out of proportion or attacking the other person.  Suggest adjourning the discussion to another time, when everyone has calmed down. Say you want to ‘think’ thus introducing the idea that people can change their minds thoughtfully without loss of face and power.  Try not to tell or boss  the other person, instead ask them relevant questions, which may begin ‘What if . . ‘ or ‘do you think that . . .?

Conflict Junkies

People addicted to conflict – what does it mean? Who are they?

Sometimes, perhaps often, solving intractable problems is so difficult, we can’t. We don’t want to try. So the easy answer is to blame someone else and create a distraction. That distraction may be conflict. It diverts attention from the real insoluble problem, by focusing instead on arguments and blame.

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In some families the conflict is habitual and embedded. Everyday discussions are conducted with aggravation, simply because that is how that family operates and relates to one another. Once, in a family mediation, a couple  habitually argued unstoppably – then every so often, they would resolve some point and divert into another vicious exchange from which they would not be diverted by the mediator. Eventually when there was a pause, the mediator asked “What would you do if you stopped arguing?”
The couple looked astonished. “We wouldn’t have anything to talk about . . .”

What do Mediators do?

One of the main objectives in mediation is to give people insights. Insights that help them understand the effect of their actions and of their style of communication on their families. This responsibility does not stop with divorce – where there are children it becomes even more important.  Sharing parental duties and responsibilities is more complex through circumstances. Mediators try to help people commit to changing to improve outcomes for their children, as well as make life easier and less stressful for themselves as parents.

Everyone perceives the world from their own perspective. It takes empathy to imagine events from another’s perspective and helping to achieve that without accusation or blame is a mediation skill. For example, a parent with a long journey around the M25 in the rush hour may be exhausted and irritable by the time they arrive to see their children. If the children have conked out and gone to bed and the other parent angrily relays the disappointment of their offspring, conflict is probable. Add the guilt induced through hearing the account of their children waiting with noses pressed against the window watching for them and the scene is set for trouble.  Situations like this are standard fare in family mediation. The same or similar scenes present in a multitude of variations, but the underlying problems are the same. There is the disappointment of the children, the exhaustion anger and disappointment of the parents. The couple’s own history of miscommunication brings them to this latest re-enactment of their disastrous repetition of previous recriminations, accusations and blame.

Can the mediator intervene effectively enough to help them break the habits of a life-time? Can insights bring about change? It depends how much people want to change. Surprisingly, the worse it is for them, the more likely they are to decide (and it has to be a joint decision) to commit to ground rules to stop the re-enactments of the past.  Next Friday the mediator will not be there, but the rules agreed with her in mediation will be in their minds and hopefully the scene is set for a different outcome.

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Much communication is either non-verbal or relayed partly through expression and tone of voice. The same words can convey completely opposite meanings if said angrily than if said in a soft affectionate way. Some people have learned to negotiate assertively in large pushy families and others have learned to negotiate totally differently, by offering and declining, and needing to be pressed to accept something they really desire. Then there are cultural and other layers of meaning that can cause complete confusion, it is a wonder we understand each other as well as we do.

It is common to find in mediation that a couple are repeating a train track type conversation,  they have had countless times. They know it ends in dead-lock, but seem to be irresistibly drawn to repeat it. “See, it’s hopeless s/he doesn’t understand . . . ”   The appeal is to the mediator to translate. This is called re-framing. The mediator hears what is said and re-phrases it so the other person gets the meaning. This can be through a more neutral form of words or different tone of voice, or both.

Many couples want the mediator to shuttle between them to spare themselves the stress of having to meet. That can work well, but if parents have to communicate over children, then shuttle mediation is unlikely to help much, as they parents need to learn to understand each other without the mediator. By not meeting and communicating with the mediator’s help, shuttle mediation does not help mend the underlying communication problem.  Mediation is the main – if not only method parents can gain the insights they need to make changes enabling them to communicate better in future, unless they attend counselling, despite their separation.

Mediation is hard work – but worth it.

Gold Standard for Family Mediators

At Focus we celebrate our successes and the attainment by our mediators of significant professional achievements. Our family mediators work hard towards the achievement of their recognition as a fully competent mediator, qualified to mediate cases for the Legal Aid Agency. Whilst very few of our cases are legal aid these days, we still put our trainees through that competence assessment, simply because it is so demanding and is the Gold Standard for family mediators.

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Our trainees work hard under close supervision with very experienced mediators and this training takes one to two years of intensive work. We have two professional Practice Consultants in our team to help with this training. This year we have got two mediators through their competence portfolio, Geraldine and Joanna. They have been duly crowned and handed their magic wands (essential equipment for every mediator) as well as being supplied with a large amount of ‘Emergency Chocolate’ to help them through those extra stressful and difficult cases. Well done Geraldine and Jo!

Young couples take Divorce to new year low

The divorce rate is retreating substantially from the highs of 1991.  The ‘seven year itch’ seems to be a feature of the past. Couples married in 2005 are 24% more likely still to be together after seven years than their 1991 predecessors. The divorce rate over the first three years of marriage is down 48% on the 1991 high*.

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Historically two thirds of divorce petitions were brought by women who were calling time on their marriages owing to infidelity or their husband’s unreasonable behaviour. Women used to be more aggrieved about bearing the main burden for child-care and the chores, whilst increasingly working themselves. Nowadays, their husbands are pulling their weight in the home and with the children and there is less resentment at the unfairness of the division of labour destroying marriages.

 

The figures are also greatly affected by the modern social acceptance of co-habitation – marriages that might previously have ended in an early divorce, are simply not taking place. Most couples live together before they marry and if it doesn’t work out then they split up without divorcing. The implications statistically for those who marry are good – but the figures obscure the vast problems of couples in co-habitations that split up – the effects on their families of relationship break-down is just as destructive and de-stabilising as divorce, both for the individuals concerned and for society.

*according to ONS statistics

Setting out the Finances

3 Easy steps to setting out the finances

  1. Honesty
  2. Form E
  3. Summary

If you are separating or divorcing, you will want to understand the legal framework relevant to your situation, but one cannot advise you until it is clear what assets there are.  So, any process to resolve a financial settlement on divorce starts with identifying then valuing the assets. You must supply information and paperwork showing the value of all the assets, the house, the savings, the debts and the value of the pensions and your income.   This is called ‘disclosure’ and the law says this has to be ‘full and frank.’

If you seek legal advice first, your lawyers will often complete disclosure for you – two of them preparing it for each of you then exchanging it and asking questions about anything unclear. If you mediate disclosure, then the mediator does the disclosure with you both together – this is quicker and costs less and again questions can be asked and answered.
The mediator can draft a summary of your financial information so you can take legal advice on options.

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Honesty

It is not an option to decide an asset is out of it and does not need to be valued; no one can proceed on that basis.  Any agreement needs to be binding.  That either means a Separation Agreement or a Court Order in a divorce.  For these to be binding there has to have been full disclosure and, at Court a Judge has to have a Statement of Information with a complete summary of all the assets and what they are worth, nothing can be omitted, or the agreement could be overturned.

Form E

At Focus Mediation we will work with you so that your Form E (the form that your solicitors and the court would want to see) is complete. We go through the process of disclosure and produce figures to work from. This can be done by two solicitors over a few months (court proceedings take over a year), but in mediation you can each see and hear and understand the financial position at the same time and the mediator helps you with suggestions and information.

Open Financial Summary

The mediator as part of the mediation process will prepare a summary of your background, your family assets and income, which can be used as the foundation for your binding agreement. If you seek legal advice you can show this to your solicitor and ask for a realistic assessment of the likely range of possibilities at court. If you both do this and bring your advice to mediation, there should be an overlap where you can compromise. Your Focus mediator will help you both to focus on realistic, affordable and practical options, so that you can reach an acceptable outcome which meets your and the children’s needs for the future.

The Basket of Truth

The basket is asymmetrical and looks different from every angle.
Each observer is convinced by the truth of their view.
Imagine the basket is the physical embodiment of the truth.

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We believe our recollection of the truth is right, because we saw and experienced it and the challenging, contrary memory of others feels like an outrage. So people have genuine conflicting beliefs about the past, about whose fault it was, who said and did what.

The process of the Law collects evidence about these truths, to decide which is right and the apparent or real truth wins, who knows if it is always right? The process of Mediation shows people they each can have their beliefs – they will anyway. However, they need to resolve the conflict about their differing understandings of events in order to shape an outcome together that they can both live with.

We should always start with the end in mind. Where there is disagreement, usually agreement eventually follows, in order to bring matters to an end. We need to end with a settlement that lets people move on with their lives.

So we should not automatically first embark on a process (the Law) that makes out each most extreme position first, as that positional bargaining drives people further apart and makes them enemies in a fight, instead of people with a shared interest in an early and affordable resolution.

If you feel angry or upset that someone does not understand events or even the world as you perceive it, persuading them may not work. You may have to agree to differ and negotiate a way forward together. A mediator will help you do that. That, in a nutshell is the spirit of mediation.

What do you tell your children when your relationship ends?

Dealing with your own emotions at the end of a relationship can be tough enough but how do you help your children through the pain and upheaval of separation?

Are you and your partner able to sit down together and talk to your children about what’s going to happen? Do you know what’s going to happen? Would one of you rather talk to your children alone? What will you say to them? Can you and your partner agree what you will say?

There are no sections on the court forms for this type of discussion and yes, these issues can be tough to talk about. So tough, both of you may decide to engage solicitors to do the talking for you.

How will that work in the long term? You might find that you have spent your children’s university fund by the time you realise that any level of communication you and your partner did manage is now virtually extinct.

You will always be your children’s parents. Don’t you owe it to them to find a way to talk about the important issues as parents and to decide together as parents what you want for your children?

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At Focus we can help you both talk through these difficult issues – and in many cases if you and your children want, we can also talk to your children in confidence about their thoughts, wishes and feelings.  It won’t be easy for either of you, but at the end of it we hope that you will have reached an agreement that you both feel works for you and most importantly your children.

You may never be friends in the future, but whilst your children are growing up and need you both, we can help you to put a workable arrangement in place that will keep you talking through the pain of the separation and into the future.
For your children’s sake.

Contents, Totems and Ginger Jars

“It’s Mine!”

Dawn: “Couples often have difficulty agreeing who has what of the contents of the house.  Yet lawyers and the Courts will very rarely want to get involved in the division of contents, simply because the cost of arguing over such things often exceeds the value of the contents by a very considerable margin.

Mary: “One solution might be to go round the house with coloured stickers taking it in turns to choose, with a friend to help you – and a glass of wine! This debate can cause huge bad feeling. There’s no special “right answer”, just what people work out that they can live with.”

Dawn: “When couples can’t agree the division on contents, if pushed, a Judge may order the sale of everything, or that they bid for what they want. Why do some people struggle so much with this?”

Mary: “Many reasons. They have exhausted compromise or they’re afraid of the waiting void, the silence.  After years in a conflicted relationship, people may struggle to leave that conflict. Also, often they simply can’t bear to feel they might lose the last argument!”

Dawn: “So … they could sort it out, but unconsciously they don’t or can’t you mean?”

Mary: “Yes, but the conflict has to go somewhere and attaches to things of which the worst may be totems or ginger jars (a.k.a “this is our ditch it and we will die in it”)

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Dawn: “You must explain that!”

Mary: “Totems or ginger jars are often a symptom of subconscious, deep psychological or emotional aspects of a relationship.  A totem is often some legal principle like the “clean break” on spousal maintenance or inherited property, but couples can get completely hung up on those issues.  There are accustomed ways of dealing with them and it is best not to resist the conventions, but none of that matters to them – they are implacable! A ginger jar often has no value and no legal or practical significance at all, but it becomes infused with immense importance – granny’s old photos or the children’s Monopoly.  When people look back it won’t matter, but it matters immensely at the time.”

Dawn: “I know what you mean – people can be totally adamant about something relatively unimportant and the fact that there may be accepted ways of dealing with it just don’t matter to them.  Nor do they care they’ll spend more arguing over the principle than it is worth. People may cling to their ginger jar until the death.”

Mary: “OK – but some people need a ginger jar, it’s the last argument no one can lose! I tell people in advance if I think there’ll be something they can’t agree – then when we get to arguing over the food mixer, after everything else is sorted, they may even see the funny side and that is a good result!

Mediation and the Law – a big change is happening

When businesses and families have serious rows everything can seem insoluble and legal action may follow.  However, emotions and old grudges may cause a dispute that has nothing to do with the apparent “legal problem” everyone thinks they are arguing about. For example, I mediated a dispute between a spouse and the siblings of an elderly patient with dementia, about who should spend what time with the patient and control his care and welfare decisions. The spouse was distraught and felt threatened at the demands of the sibling group, who had little trust in her.  This was resolved in one day after nearly a year’s legal wrangling, court proceedings and after legal costs of over £30,000 had been spent.  This was not about legal niceties – there was no dispute about money or the law.  It was about grief, loss and the human tendency to displace impossible grief into something controllable, like a big row over something.

The only option for lawyers is to sift the evidence and translate it into a legal narrative – that is their role.  The difficult relationship between people, their struggle with each other, their relationships – that is often the real problem.  A trial or solicitors’ letters can be like amputating a leg, because someone has an infection. It’s as much use.

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So imagine a huge row – about a will, a sick relative, a business – or a commercial dispute between people who work together, or about a contract – wherever there are people – there will be disagreements.  It is human nature.  Each participant comes at it with their own interpretation of the “truth” with their own beliefs, which tend to be re-enforced through debate, as people don’t want to back down. The conventional, legal ritual inflames the conflict drivers of the dispute, so it escalates.  The Law concerns itself with the evidence and legal issues – but those are often not what matters to people. Mediation reaches the conflict drivers, the beliefs and misunderstandings that fuel disputes. Mediation is far more likely to resolve the argument, as it deals with a far wider range of issues than the law can.

Given the success of mediation at sorting out disputes, it is a wonder it isn’t a first choice for anyone with a possible court application, but it hasn’t been so far. This is because the allure of court is that the judge will agree with you and the other person will be found to be “wrong” or “at fault” People want to be found to be “right”, it is much more appealing than a settlement. The problem is, usually both parties think they are right and the law of averages says half must be wrong!

The court costs are huge, they frequently dwarf the financial value of the issue being mediated – then everyone loses out.  The court timescale is long, but by the time the proceedings are under way, it can feel there’s no way out. However, since April the courts are increasingly directing people to mediation. The tide is turning in favour of fast and affordable, non-adjudicated resolution in mediation for all disputes, whether commercial or family. Our experienced specialist mediation team are proud to be mediation experts.

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