(PART 1 OF A 2 PART SERIES)
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:
- 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?
- 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)!