Sometimes when I’m conducting a divorce mediation, I think I’m a puppeteer, pulling the strings of my disagreeing clients, and trying to steer them away from any accompanying disrespect. I’m not always successful, though. I’ve heard spouses call each other liars, whores, cheaters, addicts, you name it. While I generally let my clients vent a bit, when it turns into ugly name-calling, I tend to interrupt and remind them that it’s perfectly acceptable to disagree and that they can do it with respect.  If not for each other, then respect for the mediation process. 

My parents taught me the importance of being respectful to others, to behave in public, and to put others before ourselves.  Without diminishing the importance of manners and etiquette, it turns out that what I was taught went far beyond saying please and thank you and putting my napkin on my lap.  My parents demonstrated respect by showing us how they thought we should treat other people.  Their teachings were something I used to take for granted.  Now, I’m thankful for those lessons learned.

Keeping it real though, my parents also disagreed without respect.  I define that as bickering, and they were experts.  And so are some of my mediation clients.

If you were on the debate team in school, no doubt you were taught the rules and were expected to follow them.  If you’ve ever watched a political debate on television, you’ve probably observed someone who ignores the rules by interrupting, shouting, diverting, continuing to talk after the time allotted, and name-calling.  Does that person’s lack of respect garner favor in your eyes?  Would that behavior encourage your vote?  Or are you more inclined to lean towards the debater who follows the rules, and can disagree while maintaining respect?

Now imagine that you’re the debater at the podium.  You have two minutes to state your position, and then you must listen while your opponent has two minutes to state an opposing view.  What do you suppose would happen to the two of you if you knew in advance that no winner would be declared?  Would you be able to simply listen to each other’s position?  And then, if you’re still standing firm, would you be able to agree to disagree?  

When you find yourself disagreeing, irrespective of your passion, your volume, or your intensity, there’s a possibility, however remote, that you might be wrong.  If you engage in respectful conversations with others, there’s also a possibility that you may walk away enlightened.   It’s not unusual for my mediation clients to leave my office feeling as though neither was the winner.   If I’ve helped my clients to listen to each other with the goal of understanding instead of being declared the winner, then I feel some measure of success. Conflicts can be resolved without someone being right and someone being wrong.  People who disagree with respect might just learn something.  And wouldn’t that be amazing?