“I’m a visual thinker, not a language-based thinker. My brain likes Google Images.”
– Temple Grandin
Communication is a fundamental skill for all living beings and is a key to surviving and thriving in this complicated world. Broken down to its basic components, communication is not just the giving of information, but also the receiving of that information. Therefore, for communication to be most effective, it is given in a format where it is best received, understood, and retained. We have a variety of methods as humans that we use to communicate that are associated with our 5 senses. We communicate predominantly through what we see and hear, however. One of the most important tools for effective communication is the use of visual aids and this can be especially true when working with divorcing couples.
As divorce professionals, we understand our clients are generally operating under a fair amount of stress and emotional strain. This can considerably complicate the divorce process which often involves complicated conversations and decision making as a couple negotiates their agreement. Therefore, it is vitally important that when professionals are communicating with their clients or facilitating a conversation between the couple as a mediator would, that the professional both communicate effectively and promote effective communication on the part of the client(s). One tool that a professional can utilize to assist in this process is the use of visual aids.
A well-known study conducted by Albert Mehrabian identified what is commonly referred to as the “uneven triad of communication” which concluded that effective verbal communication is a combination of various factors other than words such as facial expressions, body language and more. In fact, the study concluded that only 7% of communication is the actual words used.
Key takeaways from Mehrabian’s studies are:
|· It’s not just words: a lot of communication comes through non-verbal communication.
· Without seeing and hearing non-verbals, it is easier to misunderstand the words.
· When we are unsure about what the words mean, we pay more attention to the non-verbals.
Applying these takeaways to a typical discussion of divorce issues we can posit that the use of visuals in these discussions would be particularly helpful. Consider that our participants are often under stress and are emotionally flooded during these conversations, which are often centered on the triggering topics of their money and children. We know that misunderstandings are common, comprehension may be difficult or delayed and concentration is often limited. Think of a settlement conference or mediation session that you have participated in where the couple’s discussion goes down a rabbit hole on an unrelated topic or where they become derailed by emotion. Verbal communication alone in these situations is often inadequate to keep the conversation flowing and productive.
This is where the implementation of some simple visual aids can be of assistance in a variety of ways:
- Visual aids can help to facilitate the conversation as solutions and options are developed
- Visual aids can assist with comprehension and retention of the issues and offers being discussed
- Visual aids can be used to redirect and focus the participants to a task at hand when the conversation strays into the emotional or unproductive.
Using Visual Aids to Facilitate the Conversation
As every divorce professional is aware, a divorce settlement is much more a puzzle with many pieces to be fit together than it is a linear and clear progression of one issue to be resolved and then on to another. This means that the many moving pieces of the conversation are often difficult to keep track of. The common practice of note-taking on a yellow pad does not lend itself to sharing with all participants and providing a constant reference point for all involved.
Consider instead, the power of using a large whiteboard and markers or even better, a Google Jamboard, to take notes and to keep track of topics, facts, offers and agreements. The Jamboard has a wonderful feature that allows you to move the notes around like sticky notes and to change their color as needed. For example, issues can be blue, facts are yellow, proposals are pink and agreements are orange.
Here is a sample of a Jamboard being used in a discussion of the disposition of the marital residence:
The use of the visual here allows all participants to keep track of the issues being discussed and permits a deeper understanding and retention of all options, offers and agreements. Each person in the room, or on the virtual conference through screen share, has the ability to view the information and to quickly summarize where the conversation lies. Color and pictures can be added in order to provide visual cues to the conversation.
Using Visual Aids to Assist with Comprehension and Retention
We all have limits to how long we can concentrate and when you add in the strain of a divorce negotiation over any length of time, it is not surprising that participants can fatigue quickly. The more fatigued, the less capable the parties are to continue a productive meeting and conversation. Using visual aids in these situations allows people to concentrate for a longer period of time as the visual, combined with the audible, engages the mind and reinforces the communication. Consider a divorce negotiation where as above, the issue under consideration is the disposition of the home. Remember a time when you discussed this with a client or clients with just a verbal conversation. Now consider how much more effective it might be, with the Jamboard shown above. As the conversation continues and more notes are added to the board, your client will be able to review and retain a great deal more information and stay engaged in the discussion for a longer period of time with the board to guide them.
Using Visual Aids to Redirect or Focus the Parties
It would be hard to find a divorce professional who has not been in a discussion with a client or clients who have not veered off the path of a productive conversation by an emotional rehash of the past or a tirade of anger or hurt. Consider our discussion of the disposition of the marital property. Think back to a time when you were trying to explore options with your client and they went off track into an emotional spiral of fear or anger about the possibility that they might not be able to continue to live there. It can be hard to verbally break into that emotional space but a gentle redirect with the Jamboard allows the attention to immediate become focused on the content before their eyes. A verbal prompt combined with a reference to the board is even more effective in recentering the conversation back to the topic at hand.
Another example might be the heated discussion between two parents about their parenting time with their children. It can be easy for them to become distracted by the “fairness” of the time share and the percentage of time each may have with their children. This may be less than productive but the simple placement of a picture of their children on the table or shared on the screen can have an immediate impact and bring the needs of their children front and center.
I recently heard about a wonderful visual tool that another mediator uses in her parenting mediations. She has a baby doll that she puts on the table between the couple as they discuss their plan. She tells them that when they stop focusing on their children and their children’s needs, she will remove the doll and put it under the table. This might happen several times during a heated session with particularly heated couples and some take quite awhile to realize that the doll had disappeared but each time they do, it brings them back into parent mode and a more fruitful conversation ensues.
Visual aids come in many forms, some high tech and some rather low tech, but they all can be effective tools for divorce professionals when working with their clients. Whether you are in the room across a conference table, or beaming in remotely via Zoom, there are a myriad ways we can incorporate visuals into our practice, a few of which are shared here in this article. The bottom line is that no one form of communication is 100% effective all of the time and often by combining the audible with the visual we can enhance our client experience and thereby their outcome. Visual aids are just one more tool in the toolbox of a divorce professional.
Susan Guthrie has been one of the leading family law attorneys and mediators in the country for more than 30 years and a world-wide expert in online mediation and she has trained over 20,000 professionals in the ethical and practical considerations in transitioning to a virtual practice. In late 2020, Susan and legal legend, Forrest “Woody” Mosten partnered together to found the Mosten Guthrie Academy to provide top of the line training for mediators and collaborative professionals in a virtual format world-wide. Susan trains several times a year on the topics of mediation, collaborative law, online mediation, marketing and more through the Academy.