This Blog is the eighth in a Series focusing on the skills needed to avoid or escape from destructive divorce conflict. These skills are directed to separated parents who must continue to have a co-parenting relationship after the separation and divorce. Most people caught in divorce conflict would like to escape and move on with their lives, but all too often blame the other parent for the conflict. As a result, they make themselves helpless- or at least feel helpless. However, there are steps a person can take to escape divorce conflict, even when the other person continues to engage in conflict-causing behavior. In this Series, we identify Ten Skills needed to escape divorce conflict and provide information on how to learn these skills.
The first Skill we presented is the ability to have healthy reactions to criticism: never take criticism personally, but always listen for useful information. The second Skill involved bridging the gap between two different worlds. We explained because people live in different worlds, with different information, experiences and even what they tend to focus on, people in relationships must find a way to bridge the gap. People do this in one of two ways: effective communication and/or establishing rules. The third Skill was defining a problem in a way that leads to solutions, rather than an escalation of conflict. The fourth Skill was a procedure for making joint decisions. The fifth skill was overcoming personal bias: recognizing three assumptions that cause blame and conflict – overconfidence bias, Us-Them tribal warfare and judging bias.
The sixth Skill was an emotionally challenging one: being vulnerable in relationships. We develop defenses against being vulnerable because of powerful insecurities. The irony is that this only increases our insecurities and we become increasingly defensive, especially with our ex because of the pain we have experienced in that relationship. Ironically, the cure for these insecurities is to be vulnerable, even with people who have hurt us. The seventh Skill was about what to do when people disagree, but are both right. For more on this and the other Skills above, see the prior Blogs.
The skill being addressed in this Blog is challenging but not for emotional reasons. The challenge is one of imagination. In Blog #2, we spoke of people living in different worlds- having very different points of view because of their histories, personalities, values, differing information and even what they pay attention to and what they don’t. In order to be effective in relationships, we have to have the skill of what is called perspective taking- that is, looking at a situation from another person’s point of view. Can this Skill be learned?
To answer that question, we will take a little detour. In 1990, Howard Zehr introduced restorative justice in the United States. Beginning with delinquent criminals, the child meets with the victim of the crime, with a mediator and often with others who were affected, including family members. The mediator solicits the perspectives of both the victim and the delinquent, and they work out reparations (e.g., the delinquent might mow the victim’s lawn at no charge 10 times).
Actual outcomes have included the following:
- The victims were able to see the perspective of the delinquent, and the delinquent was able to see the perspective of the victim.
- Both the victim and the delinquent developed empathy for one another.
- Victims reported that the process resolved (or at least reduced) the bad feelings.
- Delinquents were much less likely to re-offend in the future.
This is a true win-win. These findings led to research on teaching perspective taking simply by presenting situations and asking subjects to report what they think people in the situations might be thinking and feeling. Clumsy at first, the subjects became better and better at perspective taking. It can be learned, but takes practice.
This Skill undergirds most of the other skills in this Series. It also turns the tables on conflict. Assume one parent accuses the other parent of something. Rather than getting defensive, by asking a few questions, the accused parent can say something like, “I can see from your point of view that what you are saying makes sense.” The accused person might add something like, “But you are missing some information from my perspective.” This approach will in most situations deflate the anger and make problem solving possible.
Summary. Perspective taking can be learned by actively engaging imagination to try to understand another person’s point of view. By practicing, we get better and better at it. One parent in conflict with one another parent can begin by thinking about a conflict and trying to understand the other parent’s point of view and/or what questions would need to be asked to understand. After a little practice, the other parent can be addressed directly, with something like, “I want to understand your point of view about X, but I need a little more information.” You might find that both of you are right and that you can now define the problem in a way that leads to solutions.