For divorce mediation to be successful, the spouses need to be relatively calm and able to engage in problem solving and solution finding. In terms of brain functioning, they need their left brains to be dominant despite the turmoil often associated with a divorce. What to do when instead their right brains have been activated, there is reactivity and they are being defensive and highly emotional?
The essential challenge is to help them transition out of reactivity from right-brain dominance. This will also help them feel more centered and more able to work together to make progress. What are some of the best ways to do this?
Steps to Take to Deal with Reactivity
First, remain calm. We naturally tend to resonate with and adopt the emotions of those around us. So by being very calm, you help them calm down.
Second, if you pay close attention, empathize, and really listen to what they are saying, they will begin to feel received and their reactive activation will normally diminish. This may not work as well for people who are really hooked into their emotions and seem in some way to be gaining satisfaction from the conflict. With these people, it will probably be more effective to curtail their venting at an early opportunity and redirect them to something more productive as follows.
Third, get them involved in developing solutions. Ask them for their suggestions, ideas or proposals. If they have trouble doing this, perhaps you can have them gather information or make a list of things that should be taken into consideration. If need be, you can give them some ideas of what other couples have done in a similar situation. When one spouse puts something forward, you want the other spouse not to take it as something requiring an emotional reaction, but rather simply as an idea that can be accepted, rejected, questioned or responded to with a proposal of their own.
The whole point is to lower their feeling of confrontation and to shift them over to problem solving. Emotional defensive reactivity is contagious but so is problem solving. And there are lots of decisions that need to be reached in a divorce.
It’s good to educate them up front that:
- negotiation is the essence of the mediation;
- negotiation works best when there is an exchange of ideas, options and proposals;
- it is these options and proposals that are gradually refined into a settlement agreement.
This can help the spouses be then more understanding when you take steps to shift them out of emotional reactivity and into working together towards solutions.