cbareport_Oct12 - page 19

October 2012 CBA REPORT
on second thought
the party having issued the challenge is
drawn into a discussion (often a tearful
interlude) about why they feel so strongly
about the issue.
If the amount of tension already
generated precludes either person being
able to really listen to the other with un-
derstanding, an equally useful tactic is to
move on to a discussion of a completely
unrelated topic, allowing passions to
cool. Step aside. Verbal jujitsu.
As the mediator, this is the choice I
usually make if the parties will accept
the diversion. And it is a choice indi-
viduals can make on their own, without
announcement. The passage of time
will likely allow for a return to reason,
especially if the fear underlying the
threat, usually of some loss or perceived
loss, is acknowledged and addressed.
And taking a moment to express sincere
compassion at such times can cause
incredible shifts in position.
It often behooves the threatened par-
ty to recognize that it is in their own best
interest to allow the other to save face,
by continuing to ignore (and certainly to
refrain from repeating the threat to allies
on the sidelines) and to simply step aside
from the menacing words earlier spoken,
so that both can refocus on what each
hopes to achieve in the long term. Verbal
Larsen is a senior mediator at the Center for
Resolution of Disputes. She received the 2007 John
P. Kiely Professionalism Award from the CBA, and
also served as CBA president in 1986-87. Her weekly
commentaries can be viewed at
f you believe that it’s important for inti-
mate partners to work through conflicts
as they arise, it is probably counter-
intuitive to be told that there are times when
conflict avoidance may be the better course.
But such can be the case when faced with
words meant to intimidate. I develop this
premise here in the context of a divorce but
believe it holds true in any personal negotia-
The story: The timbre of the voice
of my caller conveyed the intensity of
his emotional state. Not bothering with
any pleasantries, in curt tones he said
he was only calling to inquire about
mediation at his wife’s insistence. For a
few moments he allowed me to describe
the process, but soon interrupted to
express his skepticism and told me that
his wife was inflexible about the issue
most important to him, concluding:
only consider mediation if she agrees in
advance that she’s willing to share time
with our children equally. Otherwise, I’m
filing for sole custody.
I was reasonably sure that this
warning was born of his anxiety in
anticipating that divorce would seriously
diminish the precious connection he
had with his children so, while empa-
thizing with his concern, I gently urged
him not to throw down the gauntlet and
Threats beget threats. And often
lengthy litigation.
Silence at first. But then I learned
that he and his wife had been attempting
to negotiate terms on their own. Talk-
ing had begun in a relaxed way for their
past relationship had been a respectful
one. But with their marriage bond now
frayed, frustration mounted over the
tone in which something was said or over
a proposal made, and anger was trig-
gered. Their discussion escalated into
dueling ultimatums.
Can the effort to intimidate just be
ignored? It rarely is but actually, that may
be the wisest course. Step aside without
striking back. Verbal jujitsu.
Most threats are born of fear, and it
is the fear that needs to be explored and
understood rather than the menacing
words. But the “fight or flight” response
too often takes over precluding rational
In the divorce context, threats are
legion. As here:
I’ll sue for custody before
I ever accept one minute less than equal
time with the children
, or:
I’ll go to jail be-
fore I pay a dime of alimony, when you’re
the one who wants this
, or:
I’ll disclose the
pornography I found on your computer if
you fight me on this point.
If the sincere goal is to move a part-
ner towards agreement, which it almost
always is, to oppose a threat head on, or
to counter in kind, may well destroy the
chance of settlement, for responses to
such statements made in the heat of the
moment only makes the speaker’s later
retreat more difficult. Both parties need
to buy time.
There are other options:
If sufficient calm prevails, and a media-
tor or dispassionate friend is involved,
an analysis in private with each party
to discuss the possible or likely conse-
quences of the threatened action can be
an important reality check. But, most
helpful is the catharsis that occurs when
Verbal Jujitsu
By Bea V. Larsen
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