As children most of us heard the saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Perhaps the author of this ditty wanted to teach their child that kids who bully and say mean things can only hurt you if you let them, or maybe the point was an attempt to encourage “toughness” and to “turn the other cheek.” However, we all learned early on that the words we speak and the words that are spoken to us can hurt us.
A more accurate version of this saying is found in a poem by Ruby Redfort:
Sticks and Stones
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin, while words are ghosts that haunt me.
Slant and curved the word-sword falls, it pierces and sticks inside me.
Bats and bricks may ache through bones, but words can mortify me.
Pain from words has left its’ scar, on mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises have not healed, it’s words that I remember.
A mediator knows that the words the parties speak to each other can hurt as much if not more than the weapons and tactics that litigators use in the court room. Even when a husband or wife have chosen a cooperative mediation process to resolve their divorce disputes, the words they use during mediation may include mean or snide remarks. Sometimes the parties cannot resist an opportunity to say something that will trigger past hurts, or they may intentionally speak words that cause the other party to suffer immediate emotional pain. Hurtful words that I have heard my clients make in mediation include:
“You’re just too lazy to go to work.”
“You’re a horrible father. The kids don’t want to spend time with you. They don’t like you.”
“I never wanted to invest in that dumb business of yours in the first place. I always knew you would fail and now I’m on the hook for all these debts you caused.”
“She’s never been good at understanding anything to do with finances. There’s no point in trying to explain it to her.”
I often tell parties at the outset of a mediation session to remember to be kind and give each other a little grace. I recommend that if they find they are getting angry or frustrated with the other party during the mediation that they be sure to pause before speaking and ask themselves the following questions about what they are about to say:
Is it kind?
Is it truthful?
Is it necessary?
Is it fair?
Or I might suggest that they stop and consider:
Am I being sarcastic?
Am I being critical?
Am I just venting?
Even if the spouses have the good sense to avoid litigation and have chosen to work cooperatively through the mediation process it does not mean that they are immune from making hurtful statements to their spouse or emoting that same anger that we see in adversarial litigated divorce.
Mean comments and hurtful statements can leave bruises that do not easily heal and must be avoided even if the parties are able to settle their divorce disputes in mediation.