Four Strategies for Mediating a High Conflict Divorce
Sometimes people assume that the only way to handle their divorce with a high conflict partner is to “lawyer up” and “buckle down” for the roller coaster ride.
Statistically, this approach leads to increased conflict and less satisfaction with the results. There are also enormous financial and emotional costs, which can be compounded when there are children.
In almost all cases, you can achieve a better divorce through a cooperative process rather than through a combative one. But is it possible to mediate your “high conflict divorce”? Sometimes not, but often YES. Here are some guidelines that can help:
Utilize a highly structured mediation model. Choose a mediator who can offer a highly structured process. How will you know? Ask the mediator: “Can you please describe the process you use when you are working with a highly conflicted couple?” You are looking for a mediator who has experience, skills and strategies specifically designed to manage a high level of conflict. These may include: pre-mediation coaching for each party, productive use of caucus before and during mediation as needed, adherence to and management of agenda topics and a methodology to encourage clear communication and resolution.
Take advantage of pre-mediation coaching. If your mediator does not provide pre-mediation coaching, consider meeting with a trained divorce coach to help prepare you for the mediation process. People who need to negotiate with a high-conflict person tend to be more successful when they (1) understand how the mediation process will work, (2) anticipate and prepare for discussing difficult topics, (3) establish helpful ways to respond to “triggers”, and (4) learn skills to manage emotions and stay focused on what is important for you and your children. It is often helpful to maintain coaching sessions throughout the mediation process.
Caucus. Mediation sessions should not be opportunities to “vent.” Chances are you’ve already experienced that “reacting” and “venting” haven’t helped you and your spouse see eye to eye. A caucus (an individual meeting with the mediator) can be a helpful way to blow off steam and regain composure without doing damage to your negotiations. In caucus sessions, your mediator can coach you to communicate issues that are important to you in a way that can be heard. A caucus can provide the safe space and guidance you need to develop proposals and explore alternatives prior to discussing them with your spouse.
Don’t talk about the mediation or issues between sessions. Make an agreement with your spouse that you will not discuss any issues of your divorce between mediation sessions. Drive separately to and from mediation sessions to minimize the urge to “finish” an unresolved topic. When a disagreement or misunderstanding arises between sessions, try to address the particular incident without expanding to the broader issues. Arguments can quickly escalate and unravel delicately woven agreements, undermining the mediation process.
Mediation won’t be successful for everyone. Some high conflict disputes will simply require an outsider to impose a solution. But imposed solutions are seldom adhered to and often present new obstacles in on-going high conflict. On the other hand, many people successfully mediate their divorce even though they begin the process with intense feelings of anger, hurt and distrust. A highly structured mediation process, with appropriate support, may make all the difference.