Derailing Negotiations: Communication Breakdown

Communication is the essence of every relationship we have– professional, friendly, familial, romantic, etc.   Most couples who come into the divorce process have experienced a fundamental breakdown in effective communication.  There are several communication behaviors that I have observed over the years which in addition to contributing to the decline of the relationship, can become a major issue in the process of negotiating a settlement if they go unchecked.  Three major ones are as follows:

Refusing to Take Responsibility

Even without the trauma of divorce, people are often very reluctant to admit fault and take responsibility for their contributions to a failure.  This is particularly amplified when negotiations are derailed by blanket generalizations and attribution of blame by one or both partners.  Statements like “You always…” or “You never” or “This is your fault!” or “I didn’t do anything wrong”.  These phrases very often lead the other party to respond in kind, escalating arguments, but also make it nearly impossible for the parties to focus on active listening and hearing the other person’s perspective, as it puts everyone on the defensive and trying to come up with the next counterpoint of attack.

Instead, parties should strive to acknowledge their role in contributing to the current status of the relationship and take responsibility for their own actions.  They should also refrain from making generalizations about one another or attacking each other’s character instead of focusing on the specific issues at hand which require resolution.  But most importantly, parties need to practice active listening to gain insight into the perspective of the other party and to hear what is really being said as opposed to making conjectures.

Belittling the Other Person

Name calling, hostility, mocking humor,  or negative and demeaning body language, such as eye rolling, are all manifestations of contempt.  These types of behaviors attack the other person’s self worth and seek to degrade them.  The frequent repetition of this type of behavior is psychologically abusive and frequently indicative of an imbalance of power in the relationship.  In the Collaborative Divorce Process, because the parties negotiate with each other directly alongside their attorneys, these behaviors need to be corrected before parties can effectively reach settlement.  Through work with divorce coaches, who are trained mental health professionals, the parties are taught to communicate respectfully and are given a series of tools for changing negative communication patterns.  This is particularly important for couples who will need to maintain a relationship as co-parents after the divorce.

Shutting Down

Whether this manifests in physically leaving the room or emotional and psychological withdrawal, shutting down is an unproductive response to conflict.  Used by many as a defense mechanism, or in an attempt to prevent escalation of an argument, shutting down can also manifest itself in the silent treatment, minimal responses, or changing of the subject.  The presence of divorce coaches can be tremendously helpful in avoiding this pattern of behavior. Coaches can work with the couple to identify trigger points and prevent the emotional deluge that leads to shutting down. Facilitated breaks in the negotiation process ensure the couple is able to stay on an even keel and both partners contribute to the conversation in a productive and eloquent way that is heard by the other.

Being able to identify and acknowledge these behaviors and patterns is the first step to overcoming them in order to foster positive relationships, and in the context of divorce, to facilitate productive negotiations.  For more information learn about the role of Divorce Coaches in the Collaborative Divorce Process.


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