Talking Turkey at the Collaborative Table - Facing Conflict and Working Through It

Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict

- Dorothy Thompson

So you and your spouse have decided to engage in the collaborative process and you have both retained attorneys, along with mental health professionals who will serve as divorce coaches. You have discussed the use of other professionals and understand that they may be brought in to the process if it seems appropriate. Now what happens? What can you expect? What will be expected of you and your spouse? What can you expect of the professionals you have engaged?

Much of the literature describes collaborative practice as being a more civilized way to resolve disputes. It offers parties the opportunity to explore their own needs and interests and find solutions that meet the needs of the entire family. And, the agreements that are reached tend to be more lasting, durable agreements. All true, but that does not mean that it is an easy process. There is conflict at the heart of divorce and that conflict should be acknowledged and addressed. What collaborative practice offers is the prospect of identifying and working through that conflict with the help and support of experienced professionals.

And, with those professionals, couples can prepare for conflict, become aware of their own conflict styles and develop skills for effectively resolving conflict. These skills are invaluable- not just in reaching an agreement now but in the future- continuing to co-parent together, through birthdays, holidays, marriages and other passages of life.

So, working with the basic premise conflict is inevitable and that it can be addressed in a productive fashion, here are three tips.

  1. Trust the professionals and be honest with them. If you will allow your lawyer and coach to be honest with you, they can be of enormous help in working through a conflict. Take for example a common issue in divorce, which is who will stay in the family home. There is the court-based solution, win-lose, that is one party stays in the home and the other needs to create a new home for his or her self. Or, even a lose-lose solution, in which the home is sold and the proceeds divided, but now both parties have to create new homes. But, what if each of you is asked to think about the following: how did you arrive at your decision, what factors did you consider and weigh, what other ideas did you consider, what information did you rely on, do you know whether the other’s position is fixed or flexible, have you talked with others and was there agreement or disagreement with your idea. You may be surprised to learn that you and your partner want the same thing for very different reasons. Once you have examined what is important to both of you, the opening is there to find shared solutions that meet both of your needs.
  2. Practice non-defensive communication skills. Often, instead of listening, we try to defend ourselves and offer explanations for our behavior. Or, when we feel we are being criticized, we respond with a counter-criticism. The following conversation may seem familiar to you:
    Husband: I tuned out because you nagged me.
    Wife: I nagged you because you tuned out.
    Instead of reacting immediately with a counter-attack, try to take a step back. Ask the other person what he or she meant. If the Wife asks Husband what he meant by his statement, he might say, “I always felt as though you were criticizing me when you asked me if I had completed something you had asked me to do and rather than getting angry, I tried to pretend that I didn’t feel anything.” Being non-defensive does not mean that you are defenseless. If you can respond non-defensively, simply asking for more information and clarification, rather than engaging in a counter-attack, the conversation can take a very constructive turn.
  3. Pay attention to your own conflict resolution style and be open to learning new ways. Dr. John Gottman, a renowned expert in marital stability and divorce prediction, studied hundreds of married couples. He observed that many try to solve conflict in the same way that their families did. One of the problems in your marriage might have been due to you and your partner trying to resolve every conflict the same way, with little success- and the ensuing conflict just became more and more frustrating. Engaging in the collaborative process can be an opportunity to learn new ways of having a difficult conversation. Again, conflict will not disappear but it can be the basis of building something new. It isn’t so much that you and your partner change your behaviors, but rather that you learn a different way of relating to one another that is more productive, thoughtful and peaceful.

Divorce can be a scary, painful time. It can be difficult to look to the future rather than re-hash the past. There may be deep conflicts that partners would rather forget than resolve. There is an African proverb, “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” If you can face your conflict, it does not have to be a win-lose proposition. With the collaborative process, a new, more satisfying dance can be created.

Andrea Hirsch is a family lawyer in Washington, D.C. Trained in mediation and collaborative practice, she actively promotes these alternate forms of dispute resolution. Andrea is a founding member of the Collaborative Dispute Resolution Professionals and the DC Academy of Collaborative Professionals and in 2010, Andrea became a co-founder and principal of the Collaborative Practice Center of Greater Washington.

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