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Minding Your Language

As a family lawyer, I geek out about language. The work of a lawyer can boil down to this: a lawyer is a wordsmith. Beyond its ability to craft legal documents and arguments, language is a powerful tool that we can use to improve how we perceive a situation. It impacts the perception others have of us. It can move us towards finding resolution and peace or it can deepen conflict and difference. I’m not talking here about the impact of dropping a well placed f-bomb but rather, our more subtle uses of language.

The language you choose can have a profound effect on whether a problem becomes harder to resolve or easier. Let me share an example. One of the language tools I often share with clients is “never and always are rarely the right words”. By this I mean that "never" and "always" are not often appropriate, particularly when speaking about behaviours.

Imagine Karen comes to mediation feeling upset because her ex, Todd, is often late to collect the children each day from after-school care. She tells you this happens about once a fortnight and is a huge inconvenience to her and unsettling for the children. However, in mediation, she exclaims to Todd “you never collect the children on time” or “you are always late”. Todd, feeling aggrieved about the incorrectness of the statement, reacts and debate ensues on when and how often he is late. All focus is on the never or the always part of those statements, rather than the issue of it being important to be on time for the children and how this can be achieved. Suddenly, they have moved further away from finding resolution as they argue about whether Todd never collects the children on time.

The language we use to describe our situation has the power to change how we think about it. Lera Boroditsky, an uber- smart cognitive scientist, explains in her Ted talk how speakers of different languages will give different explanations for an event. She uses the example of the breaking of a vase. In English, if we see a man break a vase, we are likely to say, “he broke the vase” whereas a Spanish speaker is more likely to describe the incident by saying “the vase broke” or “the vase broke itself”. As a result, English speakers are more likely to remember who did it and be more prone to apportioning blame and punishment whereas Spanish speakers are likely to simply remember the event.

While Boroditsky’s example is of an accident, it still has important implications for how you can help yourself through your separation by changing up the language you use around it. How do you speak about the end of your marriage? Do you unconsciously default to statements that focus on who you believe to have been responsible for the marriage’s demise – “he ruined our marriage” or “I stuffed up our marriage”? If you fall into this pattern of speaking, what does this mean for how you think about your separation or divorce? Does this way of speaking about your separation feed your feelings of anger, blame, guilt and the belief or desire that your ex (or yourself) should be punished or does it serve your ability to move past those feelings? Would describing your separation more neutrally as “our marriage ended” or “the marriage came apart" create scope for a change in thinking about it?

I am not suggesting you don't explore the reasons for the end of your relationship and, particularly, your role in that. That is important to ensuring healthily moving on to new relationships. I am also not suggesting ignoring any responsibility and not apologising or constructively expressing feelings about how you have each behaved. At some point though, a change in language may help you change up how you think about it and move past feelings that are holding you back.

Subtle aspects of the language we use also impacts how others perceive our attitudes. If you were to sit before a Judge and start speaking about “my children” (rather than “our children”) what are you revealing to the Judge about your attitudes towards co-parenting, the other parent's importance and who these children belong to? Saying to a child who is heading to dad’s care, “I will have a reward for you when you get back from daddy’s” or “don’t worry, you will be ok, you will be alright” can give a child the (often unintended) impression there is something about going to daddy’s that is challenging or bad. In these examples, your intention may be anything but what the eventual impact of the words chosen is, hence the need for a heightened mindfulness around the words you choose.

What changes in the language you use do you think may help you move forward more positively?

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