6 Ways to Deal with Rigid Black and White Thinkers Inspired by Mediation for Divorce Clients


Rainbow Colored Toy - not all mediation for divorce clients are this flexibleDo you ever feel like banging your head against the wall when dealing with rigid and inflexible people?

Folks who get stuck in only one way of thinking? Who have trouble seeing the forest through the trees?

Ever find yourself in a conversation that seems to be going nowhere because the other person doesn’t seem to “get it?”

And as the discussion progresses they become more and more rigid?

It can be so frustrating!

The reality is some folks are wired to be more flexible than others.

By flexible I don’t mean yoga-style flexibility!

I mean flexible thinking.

Having the ability to think and live in the “grey,” roll with the punches, and think hypothetically.

One Such Person I Met in a Mediation for Divorce

Some months ago I had a divorce mediation client who fit this profile.

She and her husband often got stuck in their divorce negotiations. They got stuck in their personality differences. They got stuck in resentment towards one another.

They even got stuck on the “facts!”

One standard technique for a mediation for divorce client who gets stuck involves asking hypothetical questions. Such questions guide the client to consider alternative viewpoints, new options, and a different future.

So, I asked questions like:

What if you were able to find a way to talk to him without arguing? What would that look like?

What would need to change to be able to be at a social event with him?

Pretend for a moment that he let you take the house, how would that affect the other issues?

She argued every hypothetical question!

In fact, I quickly learned that I was making things worse by asking such questions.

I Learned That the Antidote to Inflexibility Is…

My divorce mediation client was a concrete thinker and my flexible-thinking style was not working for her.

To be an effective provider of mediation for divorce I had to adjust – be flexible.

So, I  made a guideline for myself (ironically): no more hypotheticals for her.

Instead, I framed issues in the here and now.

I focused on things she could do differently, rather than on what he may or may not do differently.

I worked with her style, not against it!

The mediation began to move forward.

As they made more progress, and she began to experience a different reality, she slowly was able to think differently about their future.

But I still did not ask “what if” questions!

Blessed Be The Flexible…

I recently came across a bumper sticker while on vacation with my wife that put it all in perspective for me:



Or conversely, the inflexible get easily bent out of shape.

Understanding someone’s level of cognitive flexibility can help avoid tons of needless conflict.

Six Strategies to Help You Resolve Conflict with an Inflexible Style

  • Avoid sarcasm: Concrete thinkers sometimes mistake sarcastic comments as literal comments. This can unintentially lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
  • Deal with the current reality: Avoid talking about things that don’t yet exist. Inflexible thinkers have difficulty envisioning possibilities that “could” or “might” happen.
  • Plan ahead for change: If it is predictable that routines or original plans might change work together to develop contingency plans.
  • Explain things specifically and clearly: Sometimes inflexible thinkers interpret information inaccurately, do not handle ambiguity well, over-generalize, or personalize. Proactively clarify information, and check for understanding, to prevent this from happening.
  • Stay flexible: The best way to make an inflexible thinker more inflexible is by being inflexible yourself! Rather than argue about their inflexibility, maintain calm, respectful and thoughtful communication.

Do you tend to be inflexible in your thinking?

Do you work or live with someone who is an inflexible thinker?

What additional strategies can you offer to help improve communication?

Please share by commenting below — I’d love to hear from you!

 LINKEDIN USERS:   LinkedIn does not have the capability for your comments on LinkedIn groups to appear on the original blog post. If you are commenting on a mediation for divorce 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, thank you, thank you!!


Tags: , , ,

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.

Enter your email address to subscribe to Ben's blog:
Privacy guaranteed. We never share your info.

Comments (6)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. I really don’t have any problems with inflexibility because I get the parties “trading” for what they want. What I do have a huge difficulty with is control. Two cases in particular stymied me and in fact, the sessions ended because I could not get one of the parties to give up control. In one instance, I even said that the mediation could not possibly move forward as long as the wife was trying to maintain control at all costs. She said she was not a control “freak” (her word, not mine) and refused to deal with me again. Any thoughts?

    • Ben Stich says:

      I wonder if the issue relates to your efforts to “get one of the parties to give up control.” As a facilitative interest-based mediator I don’t see it as my role to “get” folks to do anything — once that happens, the risk of compromising neutrality is high. And, it sounds like this is what happened with the wife who became defensive and refused to continue working with you. It might be helpful to stay focused more on the process, uncovering interests, and the idea of self-determination for the clients. If the mediation focuses around interests, rather than positions, I bet there will be less “trading” and more collaborating. Is this helpful?

  2. Jack T. Anagnostis says:


    You note how you changed your approach: “Instead, I framed issues in the here and now. I focused on things she could do differently, rather than on what he may or may not do differently.” Could you provide some specific examples based on these general principles? Thank you.

    • Ben Stich says:

      Hi Jack. To be honest, I can’t remember off-hand the specific content from this particular case. But generally I am talking about the idea of helping people focus on the things within their control, and letting go of the stuff outside of their control (ie. the other person in mediation). For example, if a wife is complaining that the husband never packs all the kids belongings correctly, I might say something like, “it’s clearly infuriating that he’s not making sure the kids travel to your house with all of their stuff. You’ve tried to convince him of your point of view in a bunch of ways. I’m not sure if bringing it again will make any difference. What do you think? [she says no he’ll never change and I might respond with something like]… If we assume that he’s not going to change, and you know you can’t rely on him for this, I wonder, is there anything that you might be able to do to help make sure you have everything you need for the kids when they come to your house?”

      Is this helpful, Jack?

  3. Famous Paul Watzlawik has some famous examples for this topic, calls it out of the box thinking, or calls it ways to leave the normal frame. Some of this examples might be helpful to make people thinking about their own frame. “If the solution is the problem” was a title of a great session.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *