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Leave the Control Room: Paying Attention to the Intention of Our Attention in Communication

Recently, I had a conversation with an experienced and wise person in our area of work who we in this profession all regard well. Despite many outward dissimilarities, this person and I share a number of similar beliefs and attitudes about a lot of issues both in our profession and more generally. By chance, we happened upon the topic of verbal domination and control. What we both reflected upon was the use of speech modes (not just the substance) to exert control: at work, in court, in mediation, and at home. This very engaging talk, which also included cross referrals for a number of good books (some of which I will review here in the future), led me to write this post.

So, what do we mean by verbal control? It is not merely raising ones voice or screaming from the rooftops or engaging in the silent treatment. It isn't just using that irritated tone of voice to deflect conversation and ward off engagement. It is the unconscious (but too often conscious) use of the low voice, the slow voice, the verbal machine gun, the talk-over, and many other techniques.

Perhaps you will recognize some of these. The "Machine Gun" is that person who uses words in a kind of rapid-fire jiujitsu to temporarily stun and immobilize co-conversationalists and thereby establish and maintain communication dominance. Like an advancing martial unit, this technique of talking treats discourse like war and uses Blitzkrieg as its means of battle.

An opposite, though equally controlling technique is playing the "Slow Hand" (apologies to Conway Twitty). The low and slow speaker will utilize a totally contrasting technique to that of the Machine Gun. The Slow Hand move is a deceptive one because it is less readily identifiable as controlling or aggressive. It is subtle in its deployment. By artificially altering the pace and progress of conversation through laborious speaking and well-timed pauses, the Slow Hand nonetheless exerts and then maintains a conversational dominance.

Ok, so what does this weird chat have to do with divorce? An awful lot, I think. The vignettes above are not meant to be exhaustive. Entire bodies of research in communication unpack these phenomena expertly and should be consulted if one is interested. My purpose here is to explore broadly the nature of control in communication through the lens of divorce - and not necessarily canvas all of its iterations.

What are the biggest communication problems in a post-divorce setting? People don't speak? Or they only text or they talk past each other? I don't know - I'm curious what the answer is. But it seems to me, that in divorce, like marriage, work, or the courtroom - a large part of the problem lies in the fact we are often not having a conversation at all, but engaging in cross monologues. Obvious, right? You knew that, but do you really know it?

Today, two good colleagues of mine caught me doing this very thing. I was, as I am wont to do, incensed about one thing or another. We three were chatting and I pulled the cross monologue. I wasn't really listening to what I was being told. I was quietly waiting for that verbal lull when I could return to MY conversational agenda. How many times do we do that or have it done to us? How many times do we feel our verbal partner is not listening and how many times is it the case that we don't really listen either?

In the courtroom, I never understand the lawyer who examines a witness with a script. Questions are all written out. Pages of material. All of it is there: to hector, impeach, cajole and elicit. But when we are reading a script, we are focused on what we want to say next as opposed to what is being said in response. Again, very obvious stuff. We lawyers all know we shouldn't do this. But think about how this translates outside of court too. And without any formal scripts. As I caught myself today, I too was doing this. I wasn't really listening, I was on my agenda of talking points.

What I want to suggest in all of this is that we pay attention to the intention of our attention. Got that? In other words, are we being mindful of what and why and how we are listening and communicating? Are we distracted, annoyed, mad or sad? Are we simply just offering a soliloquy? Are we using low and slow or stun gun techniques? Are others using them on us?

We all have dozens of conversations every day. 365 days a year. For 70+ years (hopefully). That means we will have at least 300,000+ conversations in life at a minimum. Some go well, many go poorly, many others are inconclusive either way. With our spouse or ex-spouse, the danger in these conversations is even more profound. We live with or must deal with these people a lot. And we must engage on often hard topics.

For a long time, I did not know how to speak to Vanessa. Interpersonally, my own verbal control techniques usually entail one of a few things: to clam up and go silent or to rant/filibuster. Possessed of a fairly good memory for detail, the rant/filibuster is a useful tool for me. Able to cite and refer to things from long term memory, I can often derail conversation by extended meditations on ancillary matters or ramble on (perhaps like this post?)

Also, because I can speak quickly when I want to, I don't usually suffer from having a lack of response. Always being able to immediately respond, even when illogically, is still useful in the moment, as it can serve as a conversational prophylactic. Another useful and often controlling technique is the deployment of sarcasm. In sarcasm, the exertion of irony to mock or show contempt is a very effective short term technique. The power of scorn, mockery and ridicule cannot be underestimated. It is also toxic when extreme.

But enough about my shortcomings in conversation - which I have copped to here. These non-exhaustive examples, hopefully, will get you to think about how you speak or are spoken to by others. As children, our parents probably told us "watch that tone, Mister" or "ask nicely" or any number of other wise admonitions.

What our parents were correctly getting at was that the HOW is often as important as the WHAT. Whether we are married or divorced - this is something to which we all should give more consideration. We can do a lot to improve our marriages, jobs, or divorces when we think thoughtfully about the process of speech and not just the substance. I have written here previously about a process-focused approach in divorce and post-divorce life and how any process can drive almost any substance. Many of those thoughts have been more general and vague. But, I am glad I had the good luck to see my good colleague and have the talk that I did. It got me thinking. I hope you too can benefit from thinking about these things.

So, next time you get that call from the ex or that text - think about this post and think about what is being done in the moment and what your response will be. When you make matters bite-sized and really unpack them, it is funny how they can resolve themselves. Not always but often. Be transparent. Be honest. Describe what you perceive and why. Calmly. Do not resort to a technique. Leave the "Control Room" and pay better attention to the intention of your attention in the conversation. Good luck!

 

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