Ping-Pong Arguments: Two Tips for Dealing with Family Conflict Inspired by the Divorce Mediation Process

ping pong as analogy for conflict in divorce mediation process

There are some great concepts that mediators use in the mediation process that can be applied right at home. Let’s break down mediator jargon to make it useful for dealing with family conflict.

My way or the highway doesn’t work well in the divorce mediation process, and it won’t in your home either…

Positions:

Many clients come in to mediation with a shared problem but opposing ideas for how to solve the problem.

A position is a client’s stance and perspective on an issue.

Why care about positions?

Positions can be helpful as starting points in a negotiation.

However, resolving disputes becomes very difficult when people become stuck in their position.

I have an ongoing parenting mediation that has created its own verbiage.

The two parents often get stuck arguing about positions. At these times I ask if they are back playing ping-pong, pounding their position over the net harder and harder in a heated ping-pong deadlock.

If either agrees they step back, take some breathes, and accept that the discussion is not even remotely helpful!

They put down the rackets and try another game.

Examples of “Positions” in a Typical Household

Example #1:

Wife: I want the kids to go to public school.

Husband: I want the kids to go to private school.

Example #2:

Parent: You are not going to that party Saturday night.

Teenager: There’s no way you’re stopping me from going to the party Saturday night.

There are only two possible outcomes here:

1. Someone wins and someone loses.

And the impact of this? Relationship destruction.

2. Stalemate.

And the impact of this? Relationship destruction.

If my way or the highway doesn’t work, how does the divorce mediation process create an “our way?”

Interests:

Behind every position lies a complex web of motivations, concerns, desires, goals, values and belief systems.

Interests are someone’s true motives – the “stuff” that is most important to them – and the needs that underlie their positions.

Why do we care about interests?

For one, it’s much harder to play ping-pong with interests.

You see, positions are a potential solution to a problem.

Interests, on the other hand, are the problems needing solutions.

In ping-pong, there is only one undeniable, satisfied, and powerful victor.

Once the discussion is about interests — the “important stuff” — there are far more ways for both to get their interests met.

End the ping-pong game, and there is hope for two undeniable, satisfied, and powerful victors.

Mediators call this the “win-win.”

Examples of “Interests” in a Typical Household

Example #1:

Wife: I’m worried about money and figure we are already paying property tax – why pay two tuitions?

(Interest = financial security)

Husband: I hated public school. I don’t want the kids to feel lost in the shuffle like I did.

(Interest = engaging and inclusive educational experience for the kids)

They now know the issues involve the wife’s financial insecurity and the husband’s fear of the children having a horrible school experience.

Now they can get down to work and explore the vast alternative ways to ensure financial security AND increase the chances their children have a great educational experience.

Maybe they explore school choice, or charter schools, or have a meeting with the principal, or explore loan options, or, or, or…

Example #2:

Parent: I keep hearing about kids driving drunk and I’m scared you’re going to get hurt.

(Interest = safety of her child)

Teenager: If I don’t go to this party I may lose my one chance to get together with Julieann. My friends have been all over me and they will think I wimped out. That I was scared.

(Interest = getting together with a girl and avoiding embarrassment)

A positional argument would result in yelling, tears, and relationship breakdown.

An interest-based discussion makes it possible to find ways to guarantee safe driving AND for the teenager save face and see Julieann.

Helping clients move from inflexible positions to underlying interests lies at the heart of mediation. To read a great post that can also explain how these concepts are applied in high conflict situations, click here.

How does learning about the use positions and interests in the divorce mediation process help you think about your family conflicts?

Please comment below — I would love to hear from 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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