Words can change minds

Family Practice Conference 2023

Why do we need to change the minds of our clients in the first place? This was the question we would open our session with at the Family Practice Conference 2023 in Nottingham. As family practitioners, we’ve long known that unresolved conflict is damaging to families and especially for children. In our workshop we wanted to show how, by honing some key skills, reducing conflict in conversations works.

Earlier in the day we listened to Bill Eddy, chief innovation officer at the High Conflict Institute in California, who spoke to us about some of the techniques he uses in his work. Our workshop hoped to give attendees even more tools for their toolbox.

Over-reliance on one tool can result in approaching problems in ways that are not always helpful – or even destructive. It is important to treat people as individuals – we want to fit the tool to the client not the client to the tool. As Abraham Maslow said “if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”.

One of the first people to look at the power of words in a family law context was Professor Elizabeth Stokoe. Her research analysed thousands of hours of recorded conversations. She discovered that certain words or phrases had the power to change the course of a conversation.

More recently we have started to move away from the outdated court-centric and confrontational language of the justice system, preferring a more human approach. The excellent Family Solutions Group paper “Language Matters” looked at how to think differently about those we are working with, with the aim of achieving a more positive outcome or experience.

Almost 15 years ago Denise created the Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP). It was a compulsory four-hour programme for separated parents who had attended court, and was delivered across the country to around 250,000 people. The feedback collected in one year from just under 2,000 SPIP participants of Kent FMS & RCJ Advice showed that 97% found it helpful; 86% thought it would have a positive impact on their child; and 94% would recommend it to someone in a similar situation.

What has this got to do with Words can change minds?

Well, the trainers didn’t just have a nice chat and collude with the parents about how awful their ex was. In fact they imparted information that was at odds with the views of a lot of the parents. The trainers also gained a lot from delivering the programme and spoke about the job satisfaction of seeing that “light bulb moment” in someone’s eyes when they realised that their own behaviour was having an impact on the wellbeing of their children. Their minds had been changed – all this in a four-hour programme.

This didn’t happen by accident, the SPIP had a lot of theoretical underpinning, in the knowledge that it imparted, in the way it was structured, and the skills of the trainers in delivering it.

In the workshop we looked at the context in which clients come to us, whether as mediators, lawyers or neutrals. They are all, to some extent, suffering a loss or grief. They all feel at some point that they have lost control, or that the other person may have more of it. They may feel that making arrangements for their children, or their money, is about winning or (not) losing. They may feel so “right” that they are unable to consider what might truly be best for the development of their children. Seeing all of these things on a scattergram in the room certainly brought this home in a powerful way.

By thinking about own learned behaviours and experiences, we explored how self-awareness and empathy starts us on the journey of changing minds. This was followed by exploring how to listen and hear, which is so crucial in emotional discussions. Someone who says the same thing over and over doesn’t feel heard – using acknowledgements such as “that sounds tough” and “it sounds as though you’re really worried about how the bills are going to be paid” shows you have listened and understood.

Our workshop looked at how we tell stories, which at heart are about building connection. Our personal stories live within a world of stories – stories of our families, friends, and others. We talked about how as humans we create stories that explain who we are and how we became this way, and this weaves our various life experiences into a coherent story, but it is not necessarily the same story that others have about us.

As professionals we are not seeking to challenge the reality or lived experience of our clients in a way that diminishes their experience. It is about using words to supporting clients to feel empowered enough or valued enough, to try new ways of working together.

To conclude the workshop we looked at words and phrases, and the workshop participants came away with examples of how they can tweak their advice and information – with the aim of helping practitioners find out what is important to clients, and to help clients make better and longer lasting decisions.