Stepparenting: Smoothing Conflicts through Active Listening

There are many tricks to the trade of mediation -- the art of conflict resolution. There is however, one tool in particular that we mediators use to promote good communication in our everyday lives: Active listening. Active listening involves listening to the troubled party, then summarizing and repeating back her concern. When doing this, if we are correct in our assumptions, we validate feelings with our understanding. If our assumptions are wrong, it gives the other party an opportunity to clarify her feelings.

In mediation, I often use active listening to help disgruntled divorced parents understand the other's point of view. After listening to both parties explain their concerns, I might begin the session by saying something like, "So what you are telling me is that you feel your ex-wife is undermining your visits with the children by not helping them to prepare for the visit." The angry parent would then clarify by saying, "Yes, when I arrive the kids are never ready and they resent having to hurry. This colors our entire visit." Or, "No, it's not that she doesn't help them prepare. They are ready to go when I arrive to pick them up. It's what she says while they are preparing: 'I'm going to be so lonely in this big house while you are gone' makes the kids feel awful about leaving, and that colors our entire visit." The bottom line is that one parent feels sabotaged by the other, but why is the key to resolving the conflict. Knowing why allows one parent to be validated and also points out what the other parent may be doing to undermine the noncustodial's attempts to stay in contact with his or her children.

How can you use active listening on your journey toward becoming a bonus family? It's not uncommon for stepfamily members to think they understand why the other is doing something, but they may be wrong. Operating on a misconception only complicates communication. Active listening can help.

Let's use a common problem between stepparent and stepchild as an example. As the conversation progresses, you will see that all is not what it seems. We will say the stepchild present is in his early teens and does not get along with his stepfather of three years. The tension in the home is high because the stepparent has evolved into the family policeman. Everyone is on edge, and everyone, including the biological mom, resents the stepparent's interference.

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