Need Marriage Help? Does Your Partner Ever Sound Like They Speak A Foreign Language? How To Handle Conflict Using Mediation Techniques

learn to translate confusing messages to get marriage help

When you are arguing with someone do you ever feel like the other person is speaking a foreign language? That they don’t make any sense?

When this happens to me it is like listening to french over twenty years after studying it in high school — I recognize a few words but miss the larger meaning!

When this happens to you I bet you give the other person a blank perplexed look, feeling confused and frustrated.

And then you start arguing or angrily walk away, right?

Help Wanted: A Translator Is Needed For Marriage Help

I am sure you won’t be surprised that I see this dynamic among mediation clients all the time.

A client once told me that her friend questioned the time she was putting in to her divorce mediation. She wanted to know if it was worth the travel, the money, and the time. My client answered with an emphatic, YES!

Asked why, she explained that it was because she felt the mediator was her translator – without me none of her thoughts, feelings or ideas would be heard or understood by her husband.

So What Does This Have To Do With Me???


This is not a sales pitch for mediation.

It is a sales pitch for thinking differently when faced with a frustrating conversation.

In my experience, when someone sounds like they are speaking a foreign language it is not because what they are saying is inherently wrong or bad. It is the WAY they are saying it that is completely ineffective.

Let’s take my mediation couple as an example.

They would come in full of anger and indignation over an issue that took place earlier in the week. I would meet with one and hear their story. I would meet with the other and hear their story. And here’s what was uncanny.

It was the same story! Just told and interpreted in very different ways.

This particular case required many private sessions. When I would report back to one of them about progress on the problem du jour, they would look at me in surprise, and have a hard time believing that agreements had been forged.

What if you could get this kind of marriage help on your own without the help of a mediator?

So Here’s the Trick Using Mediation Techniques

Here are two essential tools of the mediation trade that can help you become your own translator.

1. Mediators reflect back what their client is saying.

In other words, they make sure that they truly understand what the person is saying before moving on and responding.

Teachers call this checking for understanding. Counselors call it reflective listening.

Call it what you want.

But don’t respond until you really feel like you understand what the other person is saying.

2. Mediators seek to clarify information.

Rather than reacting to what someone is saying, especially if it seems confusing, illogical or frustrating, follow step #1 and validate, and then ask more questions to gain clarification.

This step is like being a detective — you are drilling for information so you can be confident that you understand what is being said.

3. If you are still confused, rinse and repeat.

Often, you can figure it out on your own with time and effort, and more than a pinch of patience. But it can be done.

It’s hard to resolve conflict when you don’t have a clue what the other person is saying.

Figuring out how to translate is the first step.

In what other ways have you dealt with someone who is confusing and perplexing? Please share your ideas and reactions in the comments section!

LinkedIn Users: If you are commenting on a LinkedIn group would you mind copying the comment directly on to the blog so my other readers can benefit from your ideas and reactions? Thank you for reading my mediation post about marriage help!

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About the Author ()

I help families resolve conflict through family mediation and divorce mediation in Massachusetts. My services include mediation for co-parenting disputes, marriage problems, separation and divorce, parents and teenagers, and family conflicts. The goal of my mediator's blog is to help teach or remind readers of helpful communication and conflict resolution techniques that can be used in their relationships. I live in Natick, MA with my wife, son and dog and mediate throughout the Metrowest Boston region. Please note that my name is spelled Ben Stich, not Ben Stitch.

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Comments (8)

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  1. Hi Ben:
    I worked for 10 years with great colleagues from
    CAMH, through academic publication, publishing books for parents and Judges, we were determined to bring parents to their senses and help them I understand the last ing effects of high conflict divorces ( or marriages ‘on children. The research shows that it creates emotional and psychological problems for children and teens. Choosing to create an amicable divorce is a mature child- centered approach that allows children in conflicted closeness to both patents. We created ”
    The therapeutic custody and access child focused assessment.
    Anyway the work was for naught:the situation
    Is even worse now for children. It’s as though
    There are no rules if behaviour in Family Court :
    The nastiest parent wins. Very discouraging !
    Hanna McDonough psychotherapist
    Book referred to: “Putting Children First: A Guide for parents Breaking up” , McDonough
    Hanna & Bartha, Christina. U of t Press 2002

    • Ben Stich says:

      Certainly there are experiences that lead to discouragement, Hanna. But I would say don’t give up the good fight! For every moment a parent takes pause, or picks one less conflict with their ex, or censors themselves around their kids just a bit more than before you are helping kids tremendously. Even if not as much as you wish! Here in Massachusetts all divorcing parents are required to participate in a Parenting Apart class for five hours over the course of two nights. It certainly only brushes the surface but it does help parents understand — as you reference in your comment — the relationship between the level of parental conflict and negative outcomes for kids. There is no question this is challenging work with many uphill battles — which makes it even that more important! Thanks for commenting, Hanna.

  2. Good morning.

    Ben, you write it well “In my experience, when someone sounds like they are speaking a foreign language it is not because what they are saying is inherently wrong or bad. It is the WAY they are saying it that is completely ineffective.”


    The problem is two-fold. One, the communication is likely ineffective for the listener’s preferred type of learning and two, the listening party is not in a receptive frame of mind to listen closely, care to empathize and collaborate.

    Now, parties can insist of themselves on rising above their emotions to do this on their own but as human beings driven by emotions and susceptible to disconnect, a trained, professional neutral party is usually a wise choice. They can help encourage the civil interaction, listening, clarification, validation, empathy and atmosphere-setting to inspire collaborative problem solving to break impasse.

    Strong contribution, Ben.

    I want to add that your writing voice shows your personality and passion for people too. If no one has told you such, I wanted to communicate it today.

    From Kansas to Massachusetts, sending best wishes for you and your family for a happy Thanksgiving.

    Keep serving others in a way that makes a difference in the world.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Michael — you always have something incredibly helpful to add to the conversation. And, you do a great job of making me feel good about my posts! I appreciate the positive feedback (and welcome any constructive feedback anytime). Emotions — they complicate things, don’t they!? You also make a strong case for the role of mediation in high conflict situations. As always, thanks. And Happy Turkey Day!

  3. Cija Black says:

    I was once in a marriage where one of us would speak and the other would give the blank stare. Your statement ““In my experience, when someone sounds like they are speaking a foreign language it is not because what they are saying is inherently wrong or bad. It is the WAY they are saying it that is completely ineffective.” also has another side to it.

    Often the speaker is actually talking in “plain english” but the listener is not ready to hear what is being said. I would often run into this same problem while helping co-workers that were having conflicts. And because the listener had some baggage around a particular topic, once that topic was brought up they were in a way unable to hear anything else. They were caught up on the accusation or perceived barb and were so busy processing or really trying to avoid their feelings that they essentially couldn’t take in any more information. Communication is a two way street and it takes both sides to work through the process of a clear delivery and receipt of the message.

    • Ben Stich says:

      You are absolutely right, Cija: sometimes it is the speaker who is getting in the way and other times it is the listener. And sometimes both! In fact, I have a draft post related to your exact point that will go out at some point. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

  4. Ben,
    Excellent article. It is not unusual that I see couples in mediation who are basically saying the same thing but seem determined to want to disagree with the other and make their point the ONE. I have at times told them that in fact they seem to agree and they look at me with surprise. I reframe what each is saying until they feel comfortable with their statements and realize where they are each coming from.

    You made me smile at your comment about French because I am fluent in French as well as Spanish and mediate often in those languages, or with couples where one is US and one French. They both speak English but they have cultural differences. They had them in there marriage and still have them in their divorce .
    Thank you for pointing out this fascinating issue with communication .

    • Ben Stich says:

      Jennifer — isn’t it so interesting that so many folks are blinded to the fact they have so many shared agreements and interests? When the focus is on their argument and point they want to make it is so easy to get tunnel-visioned and fail to see the forest through the trees. Thanks for contributing! And I’m impressed (and a bit jealous) of your ease with foreign languages!!

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