Recently in my divorce mediation sessions I have noticed an increase in commenting by the parties on each other’s way of saying things, intent of what they say and repeating remarks that obviously trigger defensive reactions from the other person. By and large these are sincere people, working hard at reaching agreements. This “commenting” seems to occur almost unnoticed by each person saying it, as if it was part of the language of the day. I’m spending more of my time as a mediator redirecting people to talk about the future and “don’t comment” on how each other speaks, their tone of voice, their intent, their intelligence or morals – and “don’t comment on each other’s comment.” Yet I don’t remember this happening so much ten or more years ago. Unfortunately, I think that negative commenting HAS recently become part of the language of today. Over the past ten years, blog postings, facebook entries, news articles and all forms of online communication officially invite “comments.” While initially this was designed to get discussions and interaction going, it frequently devolves into “your comment was so stupid” and “no, you’re the one who’s REALLY stupid!” and back and forth. I have seen this happen even in professional communication online, including professional listserves and blogs. Online comments seem to carry no immediate negative response and no risk. There’s no frown or angry look to discourage the “commentator,” as there is in person.
It even happens in the news. Recently, a talk radio commentator said that a political group invented the term “polar vortex” to explain this year’s severe drop in temperatures, especially in the Midwest. It was a criticism of those who believe in global warming, since these extreme cold temperatures seem to counter the idea that the planet is getting warmer. The radio commentator negatively “commented” on those who created the term polar vortex as having a political agenda. But interestingly, in response to this criticism, a TV Weatherman got out his old school textbook and showed the page explaining polar vortex from the 1950’s. He did a great educational presentation on the news one morning, but then he ended with telling those who challenged the term that they could “stuff it.”
It was almost a perfect “BIFF Response,” until the ending. (See BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People ) The idea with BIFF responses is to keep them Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm – a method we teach in most of our programs for High Conflict Institute.
Thinking about this I flashed back to my childhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s, when my parents made sure that the six of us had family dinners several nights a week. I distinctly remember my parents saying to me and my siblings “don’t comment.” Because we were regularly tempted to comment on what each other said about their day, and our parents were going to have none of it. They trained it out of us early and gave us the message: “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all!”
From my observations of truly effective people in today’s world, especially successful business leaders, they don’t comment, except to encourage the people around them. “Public praise and private criticism,” used to be a common motto. I think we’ve lost that in today’s world of easy commenting without consequence.
I hesitate to ask for comments on this blog, but I’m open – especially to constructive feedback about the ideas presented here (rather than personal “comments” about the blogger).
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, counselor and family mediator. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute, which develops simple methods of managing high conflict disputes and behavior. He is the developer of the New Ways for Mediation method, which emphasizes more structure, more skills for client participation in decision-making, and less stress for professionals and clients by focusing so narrowly on problem-solving behavior. For more information about this method, there is a 1-hour demonstration video titled Is Divorce Mediation for You? and a full training video titled New Ways for Mediation – 75 minute seminar and 3-hour demonstration available online or 4-DVD set .