When I was a little girl, I had a grandmother who said, “We have two ears and one mouth because listening is more important than speaking.” That grandmother frequently annoyed me with her cliche sayings, but after over 35 years in the practice of law, I have come to appreciate that saying. So, what is the Role of Listening in a Divorce and other Conflict Resolution?
At the University of Texas Law School, which trains some of the best lawyers in the world, we did not talk about listening – we talked about legal theories and how to formulate winning arguments as legal warriors. It was only after I was out of law school that I learned the importance of listening. Even in litigation, I have seen many lawyers so focused on their next question in cross-examination that they fail to listen to the witness’s answer to the question they just asked and therefore missing the nugget of gold that comes out of a witnesses mouth that, if handled artfully, could have won their case – if they had only been listening.
When I began practicing family law, and particularly Collaborative Divorce, I learned that listening is one of the lawyer’s and their client’s most important tool.
Mental Health Professionals have always known this, so we lawyers are late to this game; it was only when we started inviting the Mental Health Professionals into the legal tent, so to speak, that we realized, listening can be the key to winning in Court and to helping couples and families outside of Court resolve their divorces and disputes over their children that will enable them and their families to live peacefully going forward.
Even in initial consultations, most lawyers make a crucial mistake, in my opinion, hammering the clients with their ideas about how they will handle their case before they deeply listen to the client’s story, fears, reason for seeking their advice and goals for their situation or case. The first thing you should assess when you talk to a lawyer is that lawyer’s ability, willingness and desire to LISTEN. If, in your first meeting with a lawyer, they appear more interested in dazzling you with their knowledge and abilities than listening to you, I would recommend you interview another lawyer.
Scientific studies and the law are catching up with what the Mental Health Profession has known all along: listening, deep listening, to the other side’s feelings, is a much more powerful tool than trying to persuade them by pounding them with your arguments. The Berkeley Great Good Science Center, recently published an article by Edward Lempenen, about how listening is much more effective at persuading the other side than arguing. This article focuses on studies about this technique in political issues, but, if you think about it, issues within couples and families are often even more charged and need more managing than discussions about political views.
Here are a few things (quoted and/or paraphrased) the Greater Good Science Center learned from their studies, which apply not only to political discussions but couples and family discussions as well:
- It seems offensive that someone doesn’t see the world as we do, and there’s a tendency to correct them, to tell them they’re not just wrong, but deplorable.
- Expressing such frustration may provide emotional relief, but it’s not likely to persuade. In fact, it can make people harden their existing views.
- People almost universally want to do the right thing, and they want to be associated with groups that do the right thing. When that rightness – their opinion – is challenged, it’s a threat to their core identity.
- People don’t like to be told they’re wrong, so when people hear something that contrasts with their self-image, they immediately start generating counterarguments.
- Deep canvassing (asking sincere questions) short-circuits that dynamic. Instead of presenting facts and data, or value judgments, if you ask questions, dig in, make it a kind of collaborative dialogue where you’re genuinely open-minded. And then you might find that the other person is more able to be open-minded.
When you have had an argument with your spouse or another family member or friend, it’s likely you did not have anyone to referee the discussion, and it eventually ended up with your voices escalating and you yelling at each other. That happens in settlement conferences and mediations, too, even with lawyers and mental health professionals present. And it’s ironic – lawyers are very uncomfortable letting clients just go at it verbally – they feel like they must intervene to stop the yelling.
One of our renowned Collaborative Divorce and Mediation trainers, Chip Rose, says that when he is in a meeting where clients start to yell at each other, he simply sits back without saying a word. Eventually, they notice and that causes them to stop and look at him, as if to say, “What’s going on? Aren’t you going to try to stop us or somehow intervene?” He says, then he asks them, “Is this normally how your communication goes?” To which they say, “Yes.” He then says, “Is this working for you?” And of course, they say, “No.” So, he says, “Would you be willing to try a different technique?” And thus begins their work at learning how to listen instead of barking at each other. Chip says that doesn’t immediately solve all their communications issues, but every time clients degenerate into their typical dispute resolution communications patterns, he sits back, and eventually, they stop, realize they are doing it again, laugh, and go back to what works – listening, deep listening to each other.
Learning to communicate in a different way is hard work – think of it as learning to lift weights – it’s hard at first to work those muscles, but with time and practice, you increase your strength and abilities.
Learning to communicate with deep listening is hard work, even with coaching from a trained professional, like a lawyer or mental health professional who is trained as a communications coach, but if clients are willing to learn this practice, they are much more able to move forward toward constructive resolution of their issues.
Collaborative Divorce is the best process or integrating these communications techniques. While it is most often used in divorces, it is also available for any issue, including child custody issues, probate or business dispute. If you or someone you know is thinking about a divorce, please ask them to contact my office to see what we can do for them.