The Power of the Collaborative Divorce Process
The Collaborative Divorce Process, at its core, is a problem-solving practice; a structured method designed to create an optimal solution from a set of common and conflicting interests held by multiple parties. The Collaborative process has inherent power, as its focus is on interests, options, consequences and optimal solutions. By following the method, parties have every opportunity to create an acceptable outcome for everyone, even in high conflict cases. However, the way in which participants choose to execute the process will determine not only the ultimate outcome, but the effectiveness of the ultimate solution. In a divorce situation, the end goal can be accomplished in very different ways and with very different future impacts on the parties. Those professionals engaged in Collaborative Law strongly believe in the structural power that the Collaborative Process brings to any family conflict.
The Power of the Collaborative Divorce Model
The manner in which participants execute the Collaborative Divorce Process starts with the model that is chosen by the Collaborative professionals. The broad method may be the same; however, a Collaborative process using only attorneys will normally be very different than a Collaborative process using an interdisciplinary team, assuming both models are an option. For example, an interdisciplinary team model often uses two attorneys, one neutral mental health professional, and one neutral financial professional. Given the exact same case, it is entirely possible that the final solution with an interdisciplinary team could look and feel quite different as compared to an attorney-only model. But even assuming the same legal and financial outcomes, the clients may have very different feelings about how the ultimate solutions were reached due to the differing models used. This could have an indelible impact on how the divorcing clients ultimately interact with each other and their children in the future. We could certainly argue that any particular case would dictate which type of Collaborative model would be most appropriate. However, the above team model has one important element that is always missing from the attorney-only, or even two-coach model: the element of neutrality. Neutrality is key.
The Power of Neutrality
Introducing a “neutral voice” is compelling. More than many comprehend. With years of psychological and financial history behind them, a divorcing couple brings a complex volume of issues and emotions to Collaborative. It is impossible to do otherwise. The sheer weight of the decisions to be made can be overwhelming to both the couple and even the professional legal participants. This is where the mental health professional and financial neutrals can potentially change the execution of the entire process—by shifting the practical and psychological dynamics. With only attorney advocates, and perhaps client coach advocates involved, there could be a systemic level of distrust between the participants, no matter how skilled the advocates. Clients do not want their attorneys to be neutral nor do they see this as the role of the attorneys. In cases without neutrals, it would naturally be difficult for some advocates to avoid positional bargaining tactics while maintaining an interest-based negotiation. Trying to balance a duty and responsibility to the clients with a belief in the Collaborative Process can be tricky.
Not only do clients want their attorneys to be advocates, they view the other attorney as aligned against their interests, and therefore, as presenters of agendas and ideas to be discounted and invalidated. This “discount factor” is almost impossible to overcome, regardless of the skill of the Collaborative attorney. Thus, a Collaborative attorney’s suggestions and opinions, however valuable, will likely be discounted due to perception of bias. Additionally, once these contributions are made and discounted, reviving them as a real solution becomes remote. A valuable suggestion made at the right time and in the right way may have no effect if coming from an advocate perceived to be biased. Clients may—unconscious or otherwise–make it a goal to ensure the idea never sees the light of day again. Reality in these situations is not what is important to the client; perception is everything!
The perception that a financial professional or mental health professional is neutral changes literally everything. The clients may not necessarily agree with the neutral, but they will naturally feel as if they were treated with dignity and respect if they know that the neutral is without agenda. If the neutral is necessarily not on anyone’s “side,” he or she is present to actually serve the process. As professionals, if we believe in the power of the Collaborative model, any supporting model that maximizes that power should be a preferred method.
The introduction of a neutral, with a fresh perspective not clouded by years of emotional and financial history, can be in the best position to review, assess and suggest courses of action not discovered or considered before. For actions considered but discounted long ago, a trusted neutral can be the key to providing perspective and balance in the decision-making process. There structure of neutrality within Collaborative Divorce provides a scaffolding to hold the process together.