Three of us were seated around a table in my office, three hours into difficult divorce negotiations. The couple had made progress around childcare and custody issues, but tension reached a critical point when the topic shifted to finances.
His opening salvo pulled no punches. “I understand I’ll need to contribute spousal and child support. We’ll get down to those numbers later. But no way am I going to keep paying for all the additional tutoring and special education classes you’ve got the kids enrolled in. None of it is necessary.”
Her agitation was palpable. Colour rose to her face and she shifted uncomfortably in her chair. I raised my hand with the “time out” sign.
She waved me off. “It’s ok,” she said. “I’ve been practicing.” She was referring to a private session she had requested a few days earlier to work on ways to stop losing her temper. I had explained about "neural hijackings", how the emotional brain gets overloaded by stress and triggers the fight-or-flight response, short-circuiting our capacity for rational thought. These automatic hijackings are natural but devastating. There is good news too, since strategies can be learned to enhance E.Q. (emotional intelligence) and prevent this loss of control.
She had rehearsed ways to recognize the anger before it exploded. We had done some calming breath work, which she promised to practice daily. I had also role-played being a verbal aggressor so she could practice the calm, inquisitive responses of Active Listening to defuse the cycle of anger.
I watched, impressed, as she calmed herself with a long, slow breath.
“What you're saying is new to me,” she spoke in an even tone. “Please explain your reasoning. We’ve been supporting these special education classes for over three years. Why do you think they’re unimportant now?”
I was impressed. This was textbook Active Listening. Instead of blowing up and derailing the conversation, she was respectfully inquiring into the other person’s thinking without making any negative comments about his character or accusations about his motives.
The tone of his reply seemed to be scaled down a notch. He stated that he thought three years should be enough. “If the learning disabilities haven’t been corrected in three years then it was a waste of time and money. Now that we’re supporting two homes we are both less wealthy. We need to cut costs somewhere and this is a good place to start.”
She replied that she didn’t agree. But instead of getting frustrated and reverting to attack mode, as she would have done previously, she went straight to Plan B. “Look,” she said, “We clearly don’t agree on this point. I suggest we put it aside for now. Let’s both think about it. Perhaps later it can be a bargaining chip. If we still can’t agree, let’s ask for advice fromthe psychologist who did the educational assessment. We'll do what she recommends.”
How could he argue? They hadn’t reached agreement on the point, but her mindfulness in the moment had prevented an emotional explosion and mapped a way to positively approach the topic in the future.
She reminded me once again that E.Q. really can be learned.