How to Decrease Defensiveness and Improve Family Issues With This Great Child Custody Mediation Tip

child custody mediation tip for family issues New Paradigm AheadTwo never-married parents despise one another.

They are in child custody mediation pushing themselves to improve their communication and co-parenting.

They are practicing some classic communication strategies. Reflecting back what they are hearing to make sure they understand one another. Listening without interrupting. Even trying to validate feelings.

Amazing strategies.

The problem is they are incredibly defensive, getting caught in a vortex of claims and counter-claims.

It took me some time to figure out the reason for the continued defensiveness despite reflecting, validating and listening.

But figure it out I did!

And the culprit in this child custody mediation is…

Can you identify the culprit in these sample comments?

I understand you were sick. I really do. We all get sick. But you’re not only late when you’re sick…let’s be honest.

I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. But how do you think Johnny feels having to listen to you scream at me on the phone?

Both statements led to raised voices, blood pressure, and tension.

The culprit is a tiny thing. Three itsy-bitsy letters.

B-U-T

Yes, BUT…

Yes, but nothing!

Using BUT as your conjunction when giving someone feedback rarely works.

  • BUT conveys that the issue of concern is the most important part of what is said.
  • BUT is a buzzword. It raises antennae. It draws attention. It does this because we know that it is setting the stage for a negative message.
  • BUT often leads the speaker to a direct and confrontational style of communicating.

BUT what else am I supposed to say?

The solution is also a tiny thing. Three itsy-bitsy letters.

A-N-D

Sounds too good to be true, right?

Let’s take our examples from above and first imagine what kid of reaction the father receives using BUT.

Father: I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. But how do you think Johnny feels having to listen to you scream at me on the phone?

Mother: How dare you bring Johnny in to this! You didn’t hear anything I had to say, did you?

Now let’s replace BUT with AND see where it leads us.

Father: I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. And how do you think Johnny feels having to listen to you scream at me on the phone?

Sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it?

Worry not! The beauty of changing the conjunction is that it will lead the speaker to alter the rest of their sentence.

Here’s a more realistic replacement of the conjunction.

Father: I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. And I’m also worried that it’s also stressing out Johnny.

Mother: I’m worried that it’s stressing him out too. Of course it’s stressing him out!

BUT sounds like a rebuttal.

AND sounds like a continuation of the discussion.

Using AND forces the speaker to phrase ideas in a more open manner. It leads to “I statements” more than “You statements” (more on this in a future post!). And it generates far less defensiveness in the listener.

Sounds so easy but…I mean and…

I can tell you from personal experience that it is difficult to replace BUT with AND. Using BUT is ingrained in the way most people communicate. It is a habit, and habits can be hard to break.

A couple of suggestions:

  • As an exercise, think through what you want to say using BUT. Then replace it with AND see how it affects what you say.
  • Use “AND, AND, AND” as your mantra during difficult conversations until it becomes natural or automatic.

AND finally…how do you think changing conjunctions might help you?

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About the Author ()

I help families resolve conflict through family mediation and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. My services include mediation for co-parenting disputes, marriage problems, separation and divorce, parents and teenagers, and family conflicts. The goal of my mediator's blog is to help teach or remind readers of helpful communication and conflict resolution techniques that can be used in their relationships. I live in Natick, MA with my wife, son and dog and mediate throughout the Metrowest Boston region. Please note that my name is spelled Ben Stich, not Ben Stitch.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Geneva says:

    Excellent reframe. And is sure to create a different atmosphere than but. TKY for posting.

  2. Chuck Hill says:

    Ben: I think you are “right on” about the “but” conjunction. I wrote a piece some time ago with much the same point:

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a coordinating conjunction as: “a conjunction (such as and, or, or but) that joins together words, phrases, or clauses of equal importance.”

    In mediation as well as in other forums, these two, three letter conjunctions can do much more than simply coordinate! Consider Webster’s definition that the two clauses are of “equal importance.” Often, the use of but can make the two parts of the sentence very unequal! The choice of which to use can subtly manipulate and send a message of exclusion or inclusion. In many instances, “but” excludes, denies, discounts or in some way rejects the previous independent clause:

    But – Excludes or is dismissive of that which precedes it And – Expands and includes what precedes it
    But – Negates, discounts, or cancels that which precedes it And – Acknowledges what precedes it
    But – May easily be perceived as pejorative And – Perceived as more neutral
    But – Suggests the first issue is subordinate to the second And- Suggests there are two issues to be addressed

    “I may owe her, but I don’t have any money” leaves unspoken but nevertheless implies: “therefore, I’m not paying.”

    “I may owe her, and I don’t have any money” implies there may be two distinct issues to be addressed.

    “Yes, I would like to resolve this, but we’re not making any progress” leaves unspoken but implies: “so it’s not going to resolve.”

    “Yes, I would like to resolve this, and we’re not making any progress” implies we may need another approach.

    “But” tends to sour the air in the room making our task of assisting parties to find resolution more difficult while “and” opens a window of opportunity for addressing multiple issues, and using new approaches, while mitigating the taint of pejorative shadings. “And” avoids sending the message that the speaker is dismissive of that which preceded the conjunction. Since all parties want and expect to be heard, mediators will do well to let a little fresh air in by encouraging parties to substitute “and” for “but.”

    For more on “but” versus “and” see: Ken Fields, http://ezinearticles.com/?But-vs-And&id=441222

  3. Suzette Deville says:

    Thanks so much for posting this Ben. But is as helpful as “don’t get angry” “I’ve told you before…” and “you always….” They are red flags to a bull. It seems as though but has been absorbed into dialogue to the extent that there is a lack of consciousness of how frequent and inappropriate its use is. It sounds simplistic BUT you are definitely on to something here :)

    • Ben Stich says:

      It is simplistic issues that often create the most significant breakdowns in communication, don’t you think, Suzette? Your examples are perfect illustrations of the problem with “you statements” versus “I” statements. Love the red flag to a bull analogy! Thanks for contributing and please do again.

  4. Jules E. Beuck, LCSW says:

    A good reminder. i had forgotten this little trick. thank you.

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