Family law practitioners and collaborative team members often are called upon to support divorcing couples as they work through their conflict. I believe that one of the keys to providing this support is helping people appreciate the power of understanding and empathy as alternatives to the power of coercion.

Divorcing spouses often describe how difficult it is to listen to their spouse without becoming defensive or wanting to criticize or ignore what they are hearing. They fear that if they try to understand their spouse, their own position will be somehow weakened, or their sense of the strength of their own side will be diminished.

Practitioners and coaches can help their clients by working to make the distinction between understanding and agreeing. Importantly, you can understand someone fully without having to accept the validity of anything they are saying. Appreciating this distinction is a significant and liberating step towards being able to move through a disagreement. It runs counter to the way in which we generally think about our conflicts. To some clients, it is a big shift in mindset to recognize that two views can simultaneously exist without cancelling each other out. Remind your clients that mutual understanding paves the way for a respectful dialog about the decisions that they will be making during their divorce.

Although this shift in mindset may sound simple, it is actually quite difficult. Your client may feel very vulnerable when asked to step into their spouse’s shoes. They may feel that they risk giving up their position by acknowledging that they understand the opposing position. They may fear that their spouse will perceive the shift as an acquiescence that the spouse is “right” in a conflict.

It is hard to accept that acknowledging the existence of a different perspective doesn’t necessarily mean that one’s own perspective is wrong. This black and white thinking causes couples in conversation to fall into a win-lose battle. The concepts of right and wrong have a huge hold over all of us, especially when we are in a conflict. Even just acknowledging two conflicting views simultaneously without discounting one of them is not only intellectually challenging, but emotionally is even harder because we are so conditioned to believe that there is one right and one wrong in almost every conflict.

So how do family law practitioners, mediators and collaborative team members help their clients appreciate the value of understanding without necessarily agreeing? They stress that it takes courage, an open mind and a willingness to feel vulnerable. It also takes intellectual flexibility to listen to someone say they understand your position without being convinced that they therefore agree with it. You may need to encourage your client to push beyond his or her comfort zone, and to strengthen their voice to speak their truth.

The professional’s consistent goal should be to keep the process moving forward in a balanced way, and to seek agreements with mutual understanding. Counsel your client to imagine that, when their divorce is over, they may be able to understand their former spouse’s perspective without feeling that they had to give up their own. This is one step toward healing that will pay dividends for years to come.

For their contributions to this article, Dr. Buscho thanks Catherine Conner, mediator and collaborative attorney in Santa Rosa and Gary Friedman, attorney, mediator, trainer and writer.