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Listen: Overcoming communication barriers during separation

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  • Transcript
(26 minutes)

Today, we chat with Davide Di Pietro, Principal therapist at The Resilience Centre’s Family Clinic, about communicating through separation.

This practical conversation covers:

  • Setting separation conversations up the right way
  • Communication barriers
  • Grounding strategies
  • Psychological rigidity vs. psychological flexibility.
  • You can listen to more podcasts from The Separation Guide on our website or with Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Google Podcasts.

Jack Whelan

I’m delighted that this afternoon we’re joined by Davide di Pietro, a clinical social worker and family clinic principal therapist at The Resilience Centre, which is helping many, many families in Sydney.

Davide, tell us about The Resilience Centre and the sort of work that it does in helping the many thousands of Australians.

Davide Di Pietro

The Resilience Centre is a pretty special place. It’s a venue of positive life change. We’re a team of like-minded, highly experienced mental health professionals, all with different areas of expertise and things that we enjoy working with.

We work with individuals, with couples and with families.

Jack

How familiar is The Resilience Centre with assisting people who are going through separation and divorce?

Davide

Like you’ve already mentioned I’m an accredited mental health social worker and the principal therapist of the family clinic at The Resilience Centre.

So the family clinic is a service that specialises in working therapeutically with families at all stages of separation.

Jack

Now here’s the question which I get asked a lot. No doubt you get asked a lot as well. How one answers it briefly is a huge challenge.

But in respect of separating and divorcing well, from your perspective, what does that look like? Or perhaps more accurately, what are the features of people actually doing this?

Davide

Jack, I love that term ‘separating well’. Yes, the answer’s yes, yes, yes.

I think there’s a way to do that. Separating well starts with setting it up right.

So there’s a number of reasons and any number of reasons why marriage might end in separation and divorce.

And of course it’s easy for couples to focus on ‘why the separation’. And when you do that, what often comes up is lots of thoughts about blame and emotions and usually lots of ammunition.

So instead of doing that, I ask couples to think about reasons for the separation.

What I mean by that is instead of focussing on problems that might have contributed to — and ultimately led to — the separation, couples switch their focus. So that they’re thinking about it in a way that acknowledges how choosing to separate is actually a solution to a problem.

Jack

Yeah. How hard is that to achieve?

People, as you say, they’ve got that ammunition, and it’s hard to be consistent. A lot of people are hurt.

How can you encourage that reframe and what sorts of advice do you give people to assist them in moving from that sense of wanting to attribute blame, wanting to prove that they may be right or wanting to express that they’re hurt? Into that new frame moving forward.

How do you do that?

Davide

It’s definitely work. It takes effort. But I think exploring the benefits to it, I mean the benefits way outweigh any other options.

So when a person or when a couple is able to understand why it would be a good idea to work at doing this, usually that can help.

I ask people to think about the opportunities that we’ll have now that we’re separated and that might be opportunities for each adult individually, things like a sense of autonomy or freedom, but it might mean something else, opportunities for them as a parent to build a different relationship with their children or opportunities for their children.

Jack

That must take time. It takes work, but it also must take time, I suppose, because people are at different stages of their journey.

It may take some people longer periods of time than others to be able to see that opportunity. It must be hard to be able to see that opportunity through the, if you like, the fog of war, the fog of conflict in a relationship.

Davide

Yeah. It’s great that you mentioned the stages, because I think that for each individual, the parents, they’re often at different stages.

And so depending on where you’re at can really impact on how easy it is or how much work it is to shift or to make things different.

So when adults make that choice and a commitment to seeing things in a particular way… from early on is better, but it can really turn things around, even in cases where there’s been high conflict in the past.

Jack

Is there an element of trying and failing and getting up and trying again about this? It strikes me that it’s a complicated journey and a difficult reframe. People must perhaps try then and then fail. And in circumstances like that is the advice just to keep trying?

Davide

Well, the advice is to keep trying, but I think more importantly, it’s to recognise the little successes.

So I think lots of people can give something a go and hope that it’s going to change things dramatically very quickly, but it’s more about chipping away at it.

And it’s about recognising the little glimpses of things going well along the way, that can be reassuring.

Jack

What’s an example of someone giving something a go?

Is it a turn of phrase? Is it some skills building to avoid what might be the standard escalation?

Is it a manner of communicating with their partner? What’s an example of ‘giving something a go’?

Davide

You know, it can be lots of different things, and it really depends on the context.

Giving things a go can be trying to communicate in a different way, actually giving it a go, instead of responding with the first thing that comes to mind or the emotion that gets triggered often in difficult conversations.

Making a choice to stop, take a breath, even take a walk or talk to somebody that you’re close to to debrief before you come back in response to a message or an email or some type of communication, something like that.

Jack

It’s part of the task. And I mentioned the term skills building a moment ago. And I mentioned that because in the work that I’m doing in mediating with couples who are going through separation and divorce and trying to assist them to de-escalate and to have good discussions, obviously through the Mediator with all the benefits that that entails of less stress and less cost and less time.

Often what I’m finding is that many people, very good people, they just don’t have the skills necessary to be able to do some of these things which need to be done, to be able to de-escalate and so forth, or to perhaps recognise a trigger that’s causing some anxiety and being able to manage that.

So two questions from that.

How much of what you do (and The Resilience Centre does) would you put in that basket of skills building? So giving people advice on how to build their skills.

And secondly, in respect of people entering a separation and divorce, what is the right time, if there is a right time in their journey, to speak to The Resilience Centre as they’re contemplating or going through a separation and divorce.

Davide

So we talked about setting it up right. I think that that really helps. The families that I’ve worked with where I’ve met them before the separation has occurred and been able to walk them through it and walk through with them that whole process, it seems to go quite well.

And there’s, there’s a higher chance that it goes smoothly. So earlier the better, I think definitely, and skills are such an important part of making this successful.

It’s about skills for yourself so that you can manage particular situations, but also interpersonal skills. Communication is a huge part of this. And sometimes separated parents end up communicating more than they did when they were actually together.

So we want to make sure that everybody has the skills that are most helpful so that they can move through it nice and smoothly.

Jack

Yeah. I completely agree. From my own perspective, as someone who looks at this as both a Lawyer and also a Mediator, and I haven’t collected data on this but just intuitively and logically, when couples are having the assistance of good advice about their own mental health and their own resilience and so forth, usually mediations are far more successful.

And part of it is people just seem to be able to better organise their thoughts, better respond to what is a moment of crisis and what can be ongoing crisis as well.

Davide

Funny that you see that, and that’s part of your experience because that’s what I see. And that’s what I hope, but I’m not usually on your end of things.

Jack

Look, it just depends. Everybody’s different and every couple is different. Every relationship is different.

But one of the tasks that you and I have in common is trying to help people reframe and understanding that there’s a value of a particular claim, so a claim that people might make in relation to a separation and a divorce. There’s also the value of settlement. And much of that value of settlement is looking at the opportunities for moving forward.

You mentioned communication a moment ago. Let’s talk about that.

There’s three things that I get asked the most. Or the straight observations.

The first is, ‘we want to treat each other fairly, but we don’t know what that is’. The second is ‘our Lawyers started a fight we didn’t want to have’. We hear that a lot.

And then the third thing is ‘I need to have some difficult conversations with either my partner or my kids, and I don’t know how to have them’. So my question to you is what advice do you have for people in this art of having the difficult conversation,

Davide

You know, when I think about difficult conversations, the first thing that comes to my mind is that I can usually anticipate it.

And so when I anticipate a difficult conversation, my heart starts to beat out of my chest. My breathing starts to change, my voice even starts to shake a little bit. And then I start to notice all of those symptoms, which just makes it a whole lot worse.

Difficult conversations are almost always about big ticket items. And so through the process of separation and divorce there, you know, we’re talking about big ticket items, things like your kids, things about spending time with your kids and finances and security in the future.

So big ticket items and big emotions make for difficult conversations.

Jack

All right. So in that moment, and the people in the high performance world, which is obviously a separate world, they talk about when they’re doing things well, and they’re doing difficult things. They call that flow.

But at the other end of things, when you’re finding the moment very, very difficult, and you can feel your heart rate rising, you’re stumbling over your words as we all do under pressure from time to time, they call that frazzle. What’s your advice in how people can respond?

Because obviously a difficult conversation can be made worse by how you respond. When you’re noticing those traits, which you’ve just referenced, how does one respond?

Davide

So those those moments are really important to manage, but remember what I’ve said so far is in my mind, it’s all about setting it up right.

So first of all, if I go into the situation anticipating a difficult conversation, that’s almost always going to trigger those reactions and those symptoms automatically.

So I think that there’s a number of skills that can seem to have a huge difference for couples and given them a higher chance for, you know, making it through and navigating through difficult conversations.

High on that list would be the skill of empathy. Going into the conversation thinking about what, like to walk in the other person’s shoes.

I know how that sounds. To consider that you’re going through your own grief, but also now there’s an expectation that you think about another person and think about how they’re doing.

But I think when you consider what it’s like, and really try to understand it and acknowledge it, that can change the way that you enter into a difficult conversation.

So that’s kind of the first part of it.

But then while you’re in that situation and you do recognise those uncomfortable sensations, then there’s some really helpful and very easy strategies, things like a grounding strategy, stopping, taking a breath, listening for three different sounds, something like finding a tall glass of water and drinking it all in one go or things like a simple breathing strategy.

You know, they’re just some of the really easy strategies that don’t take much time that usually people can’t tell you’re even doing when you’re doing them. And they’re really helpful when your emotion brain has been activated because when your emotion brain is activated, then your ability to think clearly or to communicate has been compromised.

Jack

Terrific triggers, and seem to me to be very high yield things to do when you are in that moment.

Preparation. You’ve spoken about preparation and the need to be empathetic in preparation and during a difficult conversation.

As part of that preparation, is it wise to actually try to run through what you anticipate the conversation to be?

Is it wise to find someone who you trust? Who you might be able to do some work with and effectively role play? Because so much turns on these moments. And as you say, there’s so much at stake, is that the sort of preparation which you’d recommend that people actually do go those lengths to?

Davide

I think that’s a great idea. The research says that parents that adjust well use the resources around them to process how they’re feeling and their emotions.

So being able to run through difficult conversations with somebody who you feel safe with is a great idea. If your emotion brain has hijacked the conversation then what can also end up happening is that you end up talking about six or seven important things, but off topic things, and they might be related to other triggering memories or problems that you haven’t worked through yourself yet.

So it’s good to be able to know what it is that you want to talk about, be able to run through it with somebody who you trust, with whom you feel safe. But it’s also a good idea too, if you’re entering into a difficult conversation, agree on what it is that you’re talking about first.

So, even write it down. I’m a big fan of writing things down. Write down the topic, put it in the middle of the both of you and say, this is what we’re talking about. And we both agree. Anything else that comes up, we’ll note down and we might have those conversations at another time, but today this is the conversation that we have.

Jack

So part of the preparation then might be not only preparing for how you’ll actually perform in that conversation and also anticipating what the response might be.

But part of the preparation you’re suggesting perhaps should also be developing an agenda in advance and providing that to the other person. Such that no-one’s taken by surprise and at least giving the other person the chance to do their own prep for what is probably going to be a difficult conversation for them also. Is that right?

One of the things that I, and it’s so practical and, but it is so high yield.

One of the things that I say to people a lot at the start of the mediation process, and one of the questions I ask is: What is success in this mediation? What does success look like?

And it’s forever fascinating and a lost opportunity that a lot of people don’t know the answer. Or they haven’t thought about it.

So with that in mind, is it useful for people to ask that question in relation to a difficult conversation? What will be success for this difficult conversation to think on that in advance and perhaps to also ask the other person in advance what they think it might be?

Davide

Yeah, absolutely.

Thinking about what you want the outcome to be and how you’ll know that it’s been successful is a really nice way of then being able to get there.

Often what’s used is a metaphor. When you get into a taxi, the taxi driver doesn’t ask you, ‘so where have you been?’ The taxi driver asks you, ‘so where do you want to go?’

And that’s because we need to know how to get you there. Knowing where you want to go is really important.

Jack

That’s a terrific analogy. I’ve not heard of that. But it makes all the sense in the world.

So we’ve talked about preparation and what constitutes success, having those difficult conversations, or at least asking oneself that question.

What are the barriers to communicating well at this stage, when people are going through this time of crisis. What are the barriers to communicating well, Davide at this point?

Davide

There’s a psychological theory that explores a concept called psychological rigidity versus psychological flexibility.

And it says that if we hold a position of psychological rigidity – that is being fixed in our thinking, being close-minded or closed to change, stuck or stubborn then that leads to psychological suffering.

It also says that if we hold a position of psychological flexibility where we’re open, where we’re accepting of difference and of change, then this leads to psychological vitality.

So I think barriers to communicating fit into a similar framework.

They come from being fixed and rigid in our thinking, but also in our interactions and our expectations.

Jack

How hard is that to achieve that? That sounds very hard for a lot of people. I’d imagine that would sound very hard for a lot of people to achieve. It’s so fascinating. The biggest barrier that I find in resolving mediation is exactly that.

It is, wanting to win, which can sometimes be absolutely against your own best interests.

So how hard is that to achieve, and also is it age-related? As we get a bit older, is that rigidity more rigid and less likely to be flexible. Speaking very, very frankly and in very plain language: Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

In your experience. Can you do this? And how can you do it?

Davide

Okay. So at the very foundation of it all, there’s now decades of research that suggests that the human brain can continue to acquire skills and to learn throughout the lifespan.

One of the most effective ways of doing that is through repetition.

So if you’ve been in a repeated pattern of communicating in an unhelpful way, or thinking in a non-helpful way, then it’s going to take some practice to do things differently before it becomes second nature or before it becomes easier.

So while all of the science behind it says that it’s possible, there’s a number of factors that make it more of a challenge. The more that you’ve done an unhelpful behavior, then the harder it’s going to be. But I really do believe that connecting to your resources, the people around you, your strengths, and understanding fully what’s important to you as a person and as a parent, that that can be helpful in creating that shift.

Jack Whelan

That is another excellent point because people make assumptions about each other, that they may in respect of a separation or divorce be weighing things the same.

That is to say, people may think that they both want 50/50 of an asset pool.

When in fact one person will be weighing an outcome very, very differently. It won’t all be about the commercial outcome, it’ll be about how they’re feeling about themselves, how they want the other person to feel about it, what they value moving forward. The value to them of no longer being in conflict, the value of closure, etc.

So, yeah, it’s just absolutely absolutely fascinating.

I’m learning a lot. I always do learn a lot any time we speak.

Hopefully this will be part one of a 200-part series. So thank you. But just while we’re concluding. What other general advice can you give for the tens of thousands of Australians who are starting to use The Separation Guide site and who are going through this process of separation or divorce?

Davide

Um, that feels like a lot of pressure.

Jack

That’s a very tough question. Do your best.

Davide

Look, firstly, I would say good on you for looking for a helpful way to navigate through challenging times, because it can be very challenging for adults, for children, for families, including extended family members and blended family members.

So, that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

But my advice would be something that I often ask people to consider is to, you know, take a moment to think about making it through this chapter and for the most part, doing it well. Imagine a time in the future when your children are all grown up and they’re adults sitting around a dinner table together with their partners and with their close friends and they’re discussing what it was like for them when their parents separated.

And then I’m would ask you to consider what would you hope that they would say?

Jack

Davide, I thank you very, very much for those insights. It’s been, uh, just a wonderful learning experience and will be of enormous benefit to everybody who’s watching this video cast.

Congratulations on the work that you do and strengths to the arm of The Resilience Centre and your good self.

Davide

Thanks. It’s been a pleasure. Had a good time.

Davide Di Pietro

The Resilience Centre

Davide is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker with post-graduate qualifications in psychology and social work. Davide is also an Accredited Family Group Conference Facilitator and Family Therapist with expertise working with individuals who have experienced trauma and trauma-related stress and anxiety. Davide holds a unique role at the Resilience Centre specifically assisting separated families with court related matters and family relationships post-separation.