Part 1 of this series focused on how the emotions our clients bring into the negotiation room can impact the divorce professional(s) present. Our client’s negative comments, displays of intense emotion, and moods can wreak havoc on us both individually and, in the case of a collaborative divorce, as a professional collaborative team. A preliminary tool professionals can use to increase awareness of these dynamics and feel more ‘insulated’ from our client’s feelings was outlined.

Part 2 of this series includes two additional tools we can use to better understand, work with, and protect ourselves from the powerful feelings our clients bring to the negotiation table.

Tool #2. Use Your Feelings To Inform Your Efforts

Believe it or not, the feelings YOU experience while you are in the negotiation room can be used as a guide to better understand what your clients are experiencing. Yes, that’s right—your feelings. Why? Our emotional systems are sensitive and often ‘pick up’ other people’s feelings in the room. Sometimes this leads to our being ‘contaiged’ by our client’s emotions and when this happens we begin to experience feelings similar to what they are feeling. While this can be quite confusing, it can also be extremely helpful as information on what clients are feeling can be used to help determine what to do next to keep the process productive.

The collaborative divorce coach can be particularly helpful in this regard. Having met with and assessed each client individually and having had subsequent contact with each (i.e.-to ‘check in’ before a team meeting, in 3-way meetings around co-parenting related issues, for 1-on-1work, etc.) they have valuable ‘inside’ information to share about what each client may be feeling, talking about, or experiencing. Also, using their training as a mental health professional, coaches can regularly scan the emotional horizon to ‘pick up’ on and identify the feelings clients are experiencing in the moment at the divorce table. Once communicated to the other professionals in the room, this information can help the professional team determine how to proceed most effectively.

For example, I was on a collaborative divorce case recently where the wife was visibly impatient and annoyed with how slowly her husband was making  decisions at the divorce table. As her body language became more rigid and tense, she started to make negative comments about how he was “stalling and should move on already” and was “just prolonging the inevitable”. Within seconds, her attorney started fidgeting in his seat and made a comment (respectfully) indicating his growing impatience, too. While observing the proceedings, I also found myself growing uncomfortable, feeling impatient, and a bit anxious even though, in truth, the husband had not been taking undue time to respond, but just seemed to need more info around the topics at hand. As the tension level in the room continued to rise, I wondered what was going on.

I remembered that in our initial meeting, the wife had talked about an event, related to one of today’s major topics, that she found deeply embarrassing and felt guilty about. I guessed that her impatience was really conveying anxiety about potentially being embarrassed at the table and that her demand to speed things up was an effort to avoid this. After requesting a brief recess, I filled the pro-team in on what I suspected might be happening  (I had informed them of the wife’s feelings around this topic previously, during our initial pro-team prebrief meeting) and we formulated a strategy as to how to proceed. After a brief caucus with each client (to help reassure the wife regarding her emotional safety and to check in with the husband around his decision making needs) we were able to move forward more productively. Taking the time to consider and recognize these feelings helped the professional team better understand what was happening, balance the husband’s need for adequate time to gather and process information with his wife’s desire to avoid embarrassment, and to move the process ahead at an appropriate pace.

For mediators, who may not have specific clinical training, it is helpful to take a moment to observe the feelings in the room, including those you are experiencing while working with your clients. Maintaining curiosity about your clients underlying feelings about a particular issue or topic (and using what you are feeling, too, as information about these), can lead to deeper understanding and better outcomes. Additionally, learning to identify the emotional dynamics in the room and observing what you are experiencing as a result of these, can clear your system of their influence.

Tool #3. Listen Beneath The Words

A collaborative divorce case I worked on recently was frustrating for the entire professional team. (And, I have had similar experiences in mediated cases, too). The husband, who hadn’t wanted the divorce, repeatedly commented (during and after our team meetings) that he was very unhappy with the fact that we weren’t making any progress and that the process wasn’t working. His negative remarks kept coming, despite the fact that we had already made tremendous headway toward helping he and his wife establish two residences, untangle their complicated financial lives, and create a helpful co-parenting schedule (in just a few team meetings, no less!). It seemed that nothing anyone could do or say would convince him that we were moving aheadl. This had the attorneys and I scratching our heads in confusion, feeling badly, and wondering about whether or not we were actually doing good work for/with our clients.

As we listened to the husband’s negative comments, I began to think about the fact that, of the two spouses, he was clearly the more emotionally fragile. I wondered if his repeated denial of our progress might be serving important needs for him, emotionally: One need might be to help him feel more stable and not become overwhelmed amidst all of the changes that were happening in his life. I hypothesized that if he couldn’t see/denied that changes were really happening, perhaps he would feel less overwhelmed and his life would seem more predictable and stable.  After all, in a relatively short period of time, he had agreed to move to a new home and town, see his children less frequently (and according to a ‘schedule’), and give up many of the personal belongings and the surroundings he had felt so attached to—a veritable whirlwind of life changes.

A second reason why his negative “We’re not making any progress/This process isn’t working” statements kept coming might be to communicate the deep emotional pain he was experiencing. His sense that the divorce process seemed endless could mean that nothing we were doing or deciding was bringing him any relief from the deep sense of failure, disappointment and other intense emotions he was experiencing. Even though we professionals recognized that we were moving the case along at a rapid clip, for him time seemed to be standing still with regard to how badly he was feeling.

As the true nature of his communications became clearer, these were discussed with the professional team (during our debrief). Looking at his comments in a different light helped us all feel more ‘insulated’ from personalizing his negative comments about our lack of progress and ineffectiveness. To help make the divorce process more tolerable for this client, we brainstormed ideas and techniques that might lessen the emotional pain he was experiencing, and later several of these were proposed to him. After adopting some of our strategies, he was able to begin to settle in to his new life more comfortably, feel that the team was responding to his needs, and, not surprisingly, his comments about our not making any headway diminished.

The feelings that clients bring to the negotiation table can be quite powerful and pose challenges for mediators and for teams of professionals, too. Divorce professionals can take steps to become more aware of the nature, effects, and meaning of the emotions they (and their clients) experience and incorporate this information into decision making. This can pave the way for a more effective and successful divorce process.



Even though we are professionals, it can still sting when a divorce client isn’t able to see the good progress being made, expresses deep disappointment in the process, or otherwise communicates that we have let them down. Whether we acknowledge it or not, these can dampen our spirits, stimulate us to act or speak in uncharacteristic or unhelpful ways, and even keep us up ruminating at night. And, when we feel criticized, unhelpful, or that we have contributed to their disappointment, we may be less likely to “get” what our clients are really trying to tell us.

Here are two questions worth considering:

  1. How can we, as divorce professionals, learn to interpret WHAT our client’s negative comments might be intended to communicate to us and then use this info to inform our work?
  2. Can we keep ourselves from becoming ‘contaminated’ or overwhelmed by their powerfully negative emotions, in the moment?

The good news is that there are some steps you can take to make the divorce process a little kinder and gentler on YOUR system while also learning more about your clients. There are at least three tools you can use to do so. Tool #1 is included below. Tools 2 and 3 will be addressed in a future article.

Tool #1: Inoculate Yourself Through Awareness

Our clients regularly bring strong feelings into the divorce negotiation room, such as: A sense of failure or defeat, tremendous disappointment, and even shame, to name just a few. It helps to ‘tune in’ to the feelings your client may bring to the table and to keep in mind that your client’s feelings can be contagious.

Here is an example of one of many experiences I have had with ’emotional contagion’: At times, I have found myself feeling hopelessly downhearted and worried at the divorce table–as if the clients sitting before me were doomed and would never have enough of what they needed (i.e.–money, resources, patience with each other, a genuine willingness to listen, or all of these!). When this kind of hopelessness settles in on me, I want to go into action and DO something. I have found myself, at times, entertaining thoughts of intervening in ways I might not choose to if I wasn’t experiencing these strong feelings, i.e.-I have felt tempted to extensively research topics for them that I wouldn’t normally take on, or looked for extraneous reasons to ‘check-in’ with them more than I usually would, or I have even found myself strategizing how I could anonymously help clients financially so they could keep the family home a little longer!

Left unattended, these feelings can fester and grow and stimulate any of the professionals at the table to act in uncharacteristic ways or to make impulsive decisions (i.e.-Mr. Jones is deeply worried about his escalating debts, so let’s all agree to cancel our pre-brief and debrief time to save money). Our experience of our clients’ feelings can also lead to other feelings, personally: of confusion and blurred boundaries regarding our approach to the work, to a sense of incompetence (i.e.-“Why aren’t I able to be more helpful to these people?”), and to impulses that tempt us to make mistakes.

Once I am aware that I may have ‘caught’ a client’s feelings, I can view what I have been experiencing more objectively as ‘visiting feelings’ from outside of me. This helps me to feel more in charge of myself and less vulnerable to having the hopelessness or anxiety (or any of my clients’ feelings) effect my judgment or overwhelm me.  On the other hand, I can use my newfound understanding of what clients are feeling to inform my thinking on how to intervene effectively and help the team work more productively.

Feelings Are Always In The Room

Sometimes, it is a client’s frustration, or confusion, or outrage that infiltrates the professional(s) in the room—these feelings can be quite powerful and can wreak momentary havoc, or in a collaborative divorce, divide the professional team. Whatever the feeling may be, it helps to take the advice of a mentor of mine, “While in the room, don’t ever assume that any of the feelings you are having are your own–always be curious that they may belong to your client (or even your colleague) and then use this information in the work”.

Our clients’ feelings can impact us whether we are aware of these or not, but they can also serve to increase our understanding. Client comments and the feelings behind these can be used in our work as these contain helpful information. Once we have learned how to interpret these, the information we glean can help guide our next move and assist us in maximizing the effectiveness of the mediator or of the team and the process (in a collaborative divorce).

For mediators, observing what is happening in the room and using curiosity to decode the underlying feelings and concerns of clients, can lead us to working more effectively and toward better outcomes with our clients.

In a collaborative divorce, the collaborative divorce coach is in a unique position to be helpful to the professional team with regard to calling attention to the types of feelings that might be appearing in the room and to ‘de-coding’ these and many of the emotionally based comments clients make while at the negotiation table.

More about this topic in Part 2 (coming soon)!