(PART 2 OF A 2 PART SERIES)
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.