Demonstrating Dispute Resolution Skills

dispute resolution skills

When I am working with a divorcing couple using a Mediation or Collaborative Practice approach, one of my primary goals (besides working out an equitable agreement between the two soon-to-be exes) is to model healthy dispute resolution skills in action. My intention in doing this is so that they will learn enough to be able to apply this type of behavior in their future co-parenting endeavors or other interactions with each other.

Teach a Man to Fish

To truly be of long-term help to my clients long after they stop working actively with me, I need to enable them to become problem-solvers on their own. As the old adage goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Ask the Right Questions

I have learned that my most important role as a Mediator is asking the right questions, not simply providing answers. One of my favorite questions to ask a couple pursuing divorce is something along the lines of: “If you only have one orange and both of you want it, do we simply cut the orange in half?” This gets them thinking. The quick answer would be, “Yes, that seems like the fair thing to do.” But as we discuss the situation, we usually come to the conclusion that a better answer would be, “No, we should find out why each of us wants the orange.” It may be that the husband wants the orange rind so he can zest it for baking, while the wife wants the fruity part so she can eat it. By talking the matter out together, the couple will learn more about each other and be better able to reach an agreement that suits both of them.

Find Out “Why”

When I bring up curious questions that ask “why,” I am able to go beyond people’s positions and begin to look at their interests. As I peel back the layers, I start to understand their needs versus their wants.

For example, when a parent insists on having the children 50% of the time – even though s/he might need to travel a lot for his or her job, or may have unusual work hours that make such an arrangement impossible – I try to find out what is behind the request. Is it a fear of losing touch with the children? Is it a concern that others might view him or her as an inferior parent? Is it a focus on a parent’s own preferences rather than on what might work best for the children? There are many possibilities, and almost as many answers.

By examining the problem and taking an honest look at the concerns, we can often work out an arrangement that suits everyone. Perhaps we can set up regular video conferencing times if one parent is traveling frequently. We could also arrange for one parent to have more time in the summer when schedules are more flexible. There might even be an option no one has thought of yet until we start looking for solutions together.


Look Beyond the Obvious

A skilled Mediator needs to look beyond the obvious in an effort to help figure out how to meet everyone’s needs or goals (or at least as many as possible). I try to inspire the two parties to approach issues differently than they may have in the past. The way they problem-solved (or failed to do so) during their marriage obviously did not work well for them, or else they would not be where they are now. If they can learn to step back, approach situations differently, and look at things in a new light, they will likely do better in all aspects of their life, which is particularly important when it comes to parenting.

photo credit: Eric
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Second-Generation Divorce

second generation divorce

I have been practicing long enough to have unfortunately worked with some clients who are children of past clients. The good news is that these new clients have chosen Divorce Mediation rather than the contested litigation their parents had to endure. Thirty years ago, Mediation was just beginning to catch on, so it was not as available to their parents.

Having been impacted (usually negatively) by their parents’ litigated divorces, however, and usually with encouragement from their parents, most of today’s second-generation clients are opting to resolve their divorce through Mediation or, in some cases, Collaborative Practice—another dispute resolution process not available a generation ago.

Some of my younger clients have described the difficult scenarios they experienced as children during and after their parents’ divorces. I have heard tales of parents who failed to pay any child support or did not care how much their actions hurt their children. I have seen the devastation that was caused when neither spouse was able to talk civilly to the other for years, with the children paying the price for the complete dysfunctionality of the family unit.

In contrast, Mediation and Collaborative Practice give parties the ability to negotiate the outcome that best serves the needs of their family. The dispute resolution skills we model for our clients, such as learning how to problem-solve at an impasse, or explore underlying interests, or discuss priorities, become the basis for their ongoing successful co-parenting. Instead of being mired in the Court process and subject to the orders of a stranger, today’s clients are active participants and are able to prioritize the needs of their family.

While today’s Divorce Mediators cannot guarantee there will not be another generation of divorce, we can minimize the damage to each generation that is affected. Whether you are the first in your family to divorce or you find yourself wanting to approach things differently than your parents did, contact me for more information.

What Do You Want Your Children to Remember About Your Divorce?

children divorce

Children of divorcing parents are on the sidelines of the goings-on between their father and mother, but they can all too easily become a casualty. If your parents divorced, or if you have had friends (or your own kids have had friends) whose parents split up, you know how much children can be affected by divorce.

Consider Their Needs Before Your Own

If you are going through (or are thinking about initiating) a divorce, it is important to stop and think about how you want your children to remember your divorce and its aftermath. Will they recollect lots of fighting? Yelling? Tears? Shuffling back and forth between houses? Being placed in the middle of a hurtful tug-of-war?

Be aware that this ordeal will have a fall out for more than just you and your spouse. Yes, there may be a definite need for permanent change that results in forming a new type of family. But this can be done in a thoughtful way that is as considerate as possible of everyone involved, minimizing the pain while acknowledging the hurt.

Ask the Right Questions

Your children will be asking you plenty of questions throughout the process, and you owe it to them to provide truthful and fair answers. It would also behoove you to ask them certain questions, such as how they are feeling and if there is anything they want to talk to you about.

Be sure to only ask them appropriate questions – and realize that certain questions will be loaded for them. For example, asking them, “Do you like my new girlfriend?” is not an easy question for them to handle. They may in fact like her, and may be excited that she has a son or daughter their own age. But they may be afraid that saying they like her would hurt Mom. They also might not like her, but could be afraid to tell you the truth because they do not want to hurt you.

Try to put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself how you would feel about certain questions if they were posed to you.

Provide Resources

If your children seem like they are holding their emotions in or are not able to talk freely with you, be sure to provide them with other resources to talk to as well. Perhaps they are close to another role model in their lives – a teacher, relative, coach, pastor, or friend – who could help them try to process a confusing and painful turn of events. It may also be helpful for them to share their feelings with peers or others they know whose parents have gone through a divorce in the past, as long as these friends have constructive advice to help them.

Another option would be to connect them with a professional counselor or therapist. Sometimes friends and relatives are not enough. Professionals have specialized education and training that may help them to be more effective in reaching children. Additionally, they provide a greater degree of neutrality, which means children do not have to worry about hurting their feelings and can speak openly and honestly.

Think of the Future, Not Just the Present

When you are going through a difficult or emotional time in your life, it can be easy to think about how you are feeling or what you want in the moment. However, it is in the best interest of not only yourself but also your children to think about the long-term impact of any decision you make or action you take now.

By using Mediation or Collaborative Practice to negotiate the terms of your divorce, you will have the best chance of achieving results that are family-friendly. While a divorce is generally stressful and emotional for all parties involved, it does not have to be nasty or leave deep scars in the next generation.

photo credit: Bridget Coila
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Creative Child Support Options

child support

Most divorcing parents truly want to do their part to help support their children in the coming years. That being said, some still visibly resist the idea of being forced to pay child support. A common refrain I hear is, “Of course I want to help my kids; I just don’t want to give the money to him/her”, or “I want to help pay for my child’s college education, but I resent being told by a Court how much I will need to contribute, or what kind of an institution my child will attend.”

Such sentiments are understandable. It is easy to see how parents could be offended that a Judge who does not know them personally would impose a ruling regarding how they take care of their own children. However, it is the Court’s duty to objectively enforce rules and laws because sadly there are cases when parents do not have their children’s best interests at heart.

While there is little flexibility in child support options for couples who go the Court route, we are able to be much more creative with those who go through Mediation or Collaborative Practice (CP) – as long as the couple is able to communicate well and work things out civilly.

First Things First

When I am working with clients, I first make sure they understand what basic child support is intended to cover. This generally includes fundamental needs, such as a roof over the children’s heads, food on the table, reasonable transportation, and sufficient clothing.

Extracurricular activities, sports or activity-related clothing and gear, medical expenses, educational needs, college tuition, and insurance are usually calculated separately in addition to basic child support.

Compensating for Income Differentials

If both spouses are making close to same amount of money, there are certain presumptions of what each should cover for their children. If there is a big differential in their income amount, however, the one with the higher income is expected to cover a larger share of the expenses.

Working out the logistics of such an arrangement through Mediation requires a higher degree of cooperation between both parties. Otherwise, negotiations will just be a constant battle, which is not healthy or productive for anyone involved.

If there is a reasonable degree of cooperation, we can be creative. For example, we could set up a shared bank account where both parents deposit a certain amount of money every month. This does not necessarily have to be an equal amount, as long as it is determined in advance and reviewed on an annual basis to see if the arrangement still works.

The idea of this kind of set-up would be that a certain list of expenses would be paid out of this account. The ground rules would be set up in advance. For example, one party would be putting x in every month while the other party would be putting in x. We would determine the date by which the funds would be deposited each month, and decide which individual would be writing the checks and making payments. The parents would need to understand that there still could be unexpected expenses that arise; while most costs can be predicted, not all can. That being said, this option still works for a lot of people.

Splitting Expenses

Another idea I often see implemented is that the parents agree to split certain expenses. For example, Dad will pay for soccer and dance lessons, while Mom will pay for school lunches. If there are an even number of children, Dad might agree to pay for two of the kids’ expenses while Mom pays for the other two kids’ expenses. If an extraordinary or unexpected expense over a certain amount arises, they can agree that they will split it.

Will These Creative Child Support Options Hold Up in Court?

As long as the Court is satisfied that the children or dependent(s) will be the recipient(s) of the amount of support that is appropriate, the creative options we come up with through Mediation or CP are acceptable before a Judge. My experience has been that working with my clients to come up with “out-of-the-box” thinking and unique approaches to meet support needs has been found to be favorable in the eyes of the Court.

A Powerful Combination of Teamwork and the Right Resources

teamwork

Last June, I wrote about my “temporary” professional transition as I took over as the Interim manager of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP). I had had a lot of history with this organization, having served in various capacities (including member, committee member/chair, board member, and President) over the previous 15 years, so I was eager to help in any way I could when the new CEO hired by the board suddenly resigned in early 2017.

Since we thought a candidate would be found fairly quickly, I committed to filling in temporarily, including “commuting” to Phoenix, AZ as needed. The interim period stretched on much longer than any of us could have imagined; only now am I wrapping up my related duties and finishing training my replacement.

As my challenging role and long work hours draw to an end and I re-immerse myself in my own Mediation and Collaborative Practice firm, I finally have time to begin reflecting back over the past year to appreciate the personal and professional lessons I have learned. Here are some of them:

The Power of Teamwork

When I first went down to Phoenix last March, I was quickly overwhelmed (and that is an understatement!). The job was intense, as much of my initial role involved putting out fires and dealing with emergencies that had cropped up due to the sudden departure of my predecessor. I found myself putting in 18-hour days, 7 days a week, for the first three weeks I was there. I distinctly remember looking at a clock on a Thursday of the third week, noticing it was 5pm, and realizing it was the first day I could actually leave the office at a normal time.

I faced a steep learning curve in many areas. Having never run an organization before, I had a lot to learn about the inner workings. I really had no idea how the financial aspects worked; in fact, I did not even know how to use QuickBooks. Fortunately, an amazing staff person with a good head on her shoulders helped me initially. When the former CEO had resigned, the board member who had been serving as treasurer resigned as well. Unbeknownst to me, someone I knew as a mental health professional saw the need and stepped up, informing us that she had formerly worked as a CFO. She was appointed treasurer.

I felt a little guilty that I should be doing more in the financial arena, but realizing that realistically I did not have the time or background, I left it to them, since they understood all the financials. I did try to educate myself, participated in conference calls, and reviewed the budget, but there is absolutely no way I could have brought the organization to the place it needed to be financially on my own. If it hadn’t been for Anne and Alicia (who was just hired a month before) stepping up, we would have been in serious trouble.

Because I had been off the board for a number of years, I was not up on all of the IACP goings-on like I had been previously. The current president of the organization graciously reached out and helped me tremendously, too. Recently people have been kind, saying nice things about me since I basically gave up my life for a year, but the fact is that it was our team that made things happen: the new treasurer, dedicated staff person, president, and myself. If it hadn’t been for all four of us, we would not have been able to do what we did.

The Value of Resources

Incredibly, we managed to keep all the big balls in the air; only a few minor ones got dropped. The organization puts on an annual conference in October. I started in my new role on March 5; ten days later was the deadline for the submission of speaker proposals for the conference. Since I knew we would have to review the proposals, make our selection, and get the program schedule together soon, I asked for an update on current proposals. I was told we only had one so far. The program typically contains 30 to 45 workshops, and we often get more than 100 proposals submitted. It turned out that my predecessor had only sent out one announcement and was actually in favor of cancelling the conference.

I quickly sprung into action. I knew there was no way I could do everything myself. I had a team, and beyond that I had outside resources that I could tap. I reached out to all kinds of people throughout the organization; I notified the board of our situation, and ran a promotion through a contact I knew who runs a list serve. Knowing you can call on the right people to assist you when you need them makes such a big difference. I may have used up a lot of political capital, but I had it to use. We were able to successfully pull off the conference on time.

Practicing What I Preach

I have long known about the value of the right combination of teamwork and resources, and I preach this to my clients often. They often push back, saying they do not really need more people (financial, mental, and tax professionals, etc.) on their team. In some cases, I suspect this has largely to do with what they consider to be an unnecessary extra expense related to collaborative meetings. In reality, however, we are doing them a great service by getting the right players on the team so we can try to hit a home run.

During my time as interim manager, I saw the value of these principles of collaboration illustrated right before my eyes on a regular basis. People within the IACP organization saw what needed to be done and stepped up as volunteers. Because they are all collaboratively trained, they understand the value of teamwork. This way of thinking is so ingrained in them that they just acted on it.

My biggest lesson from this past year is reinforcement of the significance of the collaborative approach and the importance of the training that we get. With the right team and the right resources, any problem can be handled correctly, if not solved.

photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski
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Spring Into Change

mediation

The start of each new year inspires many people to make resolutions to improve themselves or their situations. These vows to change – to exercise more, eat better, read more, etc. – are positive and worthwhile.

The coming of Spring is another season that offers the promise of fresh possibilities, new life, and the opportunity to turn over a new leaf. We plant a seed into moist soil and watch it grow and ripen into a plant. We watch the explosion of green everywhere as tiny buds blossom into leaves and flowers. We throw open our doors and windows to let in the fresh air and sunlight, and embark on spring cleaning with a fervor.

While physical change is a good place to start, why stop there? Use this time to make much-needed changes in your relationships and communication patterns, too. We see conflict nearly everywhere we look these days. Turn on the news, and it is there. Read the newspaper, and it jumps out at you. Go into our homes, look at our families, and we see squabbles, dysfunction, and division.

Maybe it is time to take a different approach and learn how to resolve conflict constructively. While many situations are outside of our control, we are able to determine our response to circumstances. Everyone fights or gets into disagreements from time to time; that is human nature. The important thing is to learn how to work things out in a civil, productive way.

As a Mediator, I do not exclusively meet with people who are in a crisis, legal situation, or divorce. Sometimes my clients just want to change their relational patterns, and they come to me for help and advice. If you are ready to learn how to better resolve issues with your spouse (or significant other), your children (or adult children), your parents, or anyone else, reach out to me and we can schedule an appointment. The best kind of change always starts with you.

Photo credit: Cristian N. MORMOLOC
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New Year, New (Tax) Questions

Following the December 2017 passage of the “Tax Cuts & Jobs Act”, we now have new tax laws in place – sort of. The law designed to “simplify” the tax code is over 500 pages. It was hastily drafted and hastily passed. The truth is that no one really knows yet what is in it, or (especially) what its impact will be. There will likely be conflicts discovered within the provisions, and much legislative and regulatory action will be needed to figure it all out. Divorcing taxpayers are not the only ones affected, but they are affected in many ways. A noteworthy change is that alimony payors will no longer be able to deduct their payments for orders entered after 2018. The ability to do so and to shift taxes to the lower income recipient has been an important benefit for many divorcing families. Without this option, more money will go to the government and less will be available for families.
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