The Secret Language of Couples: What Lies Beneath the Words?

{3:00 minutes to read} 

Am I correct in understanding that this is what you meant? 


Is THAT what you meant?!

Even on the written page it is clear that there is a distinction between these two questions. While the point of both questions is to discern intention, the tone of each question is distinctly different. The former implies curiosity while the latter implies judgment.

In mediation, couples frequently utilize a subtle, secret language. To the outsider – the mediator – the literal meaning of the words may appear benign. However, to the insiders – the couple – the meaning can be, and often is, critical or even antagonistic.

When working with couples in conflict, it is important to look with curiosity beneath the basic definition of the words used by asking clarifying questions about meaning and intention.

Over time, couples form a secret language that has to do with their conflict dynamic and their history. Often, in sessions, a spouse will say something that the other spouse interprets as criticism. Sitting in the mediator’s chair, I may not have “heard” the criticism or the intent to create conflict. This situation can be tricky for a mediator or other professional working with the couple. It is sometimes easy to inadvertently fall into the conflict trap with the couple before you see it coming. It is sometimes part of our job to discern the true meaning of what was said, understand why it was said and then, if need be, address it with the couple.

It is not feasible to do this task if I, as the mediator, allow myself to believe my own interpretation of what was said in the session. I’ve learned over time that what appears on the surface can be – and often is – overly simplistic.

One thing to do is get really curious and ask whether or not something else may have been intended without conveying judgment.

I mean GET curious, don’t ACT curious. Even when you are genuinely curious, it can be tricky to articulate these questions of inquiry in mediation sessions without conveying judgment or disbelief. I really appreciate and utilize the techniques described in Sharon Ellison’s book, Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (2002).

When asking questions to clarify meaning, I am conscientious of:

  • my tone;
  • my facial expressions;
  • my own intention (curiosity vs. judgment); and
  • my own assumptions.

When I turn to a spouse in a session and ask for clarification, I’m asking from a place of really wanting to know. It does not matter if my original assumption or interpretation was correct. The couple has known each other longer, better and has an extensive history. The mediator’s genuine curiosity can be the key to successfully navigating the secret language of couples.

Have you encountered a secret language in your sessions? If so, how did you address it?

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