In order to begin equipping clients to work within the collaborative process and to equip the team with the details of the clients’ personality styles, it is considered best practice for the Mental Health Professional (MHP) to meet with the clients individually. When scheduling these interviews, allow at least 1.5 hours each; always contact both clients at the same time to schedule the appointment; and, if one spouse contacts you first, ask for the other’s e-mail address.
In general, you should avoid communicating information to one spouse without communicating it to the other.
Before your interviews, discuss with your team co-professionals whether to require the couple to take a version of the Myers Briggs personalty test in order to independently ascertain their personality types and cognitive styles. You may not need to do this if you are adept at discerning these styles on your own. Either way, gaining an understanding of the clients’ personality and cognition styles will your team to work most effectively with both of them.
During the interview, set the ground rules first. It is paramount that the clients understand that you will never act in a therapeutic role. “I am not a therapist; I will not be asking you about your childhood, or helping you analyze why you feel the way that you do, other than how I may affect your ability to move through this process, communicate your interests and goals, and negotiate the details of your divorce.”
Next, ask “Why did you choose the collaborative process?” Their answers will help you understand their motivations, which could be useful later in the process. You can follow this up with some general questions about the family background, such as:
- “How long were you married?” “Is this your first marriage?” “How old are your kids and where they are living now?”
- “What were the strengths in your marriage? What worked well?”
- “Would your spouse say the same? If not, what strengths would she list?”
- Strengths that they had in the marriage they will also have in the process; if their answers are radically different from each other then this may indicate poor communication skills and/or increased risk for miscommunication.
- “What were the weaknesses in your relationship?”
- “Would your spouse say the same? If not, what weaknesses would she tell me about?”
- Weaknesses in the relationship are likely to be weaknesses in the process.
- “Why and when did the disconnect between you take place, if you know? What was the progression?”
- This is a good chance to show empathy and build rapport, but do not stay here too long.
- Also, their insight level will tell you whether or not they still need closure.
As you ask these questions, pay attention to how the clients respond to you. Are they blaming? Are they giving superficial answers? Or too much and/or inappropriate information, such as too many details about sex? And what is their body language telling you? Are they leaning forward and making eye contact, or do they have their arms folded while looking away?
Keep in mind that, once you’ve completed these interviews, you’ll want to share your observations with the rest of the professionals on the team, so take careful notes as you go. Use good descriptive adjectives and adverbs, i.e. “she was direct, succinct, I get the sense that she’s being truthful, he struggled, she looked down, she couldn’t look me in the eye, he was distrusting.” Quote the client when appropriate, i.e. if she said things like “I don’t want to answer that question.” Remember that your objective is to share information with the team that is relevant to the collaborative process. Details about personal issues, specific marital arguments, etc. are usually not relevant, unless they are indicative of an overall personality or cognition style.
Next, discuss with the client how he or she processes information and how he or she handles both stress and conflict. These will be critical elements to ensuring good communication, both between collaborative professional and client, as well as between the two clients:
- “What is your best way to take in information? Are you visual, white board, or auditory? Something else? Do you need a quiet room? What works especially well for you?”
- “How do you process information? Particularly if it’s important, or surprising to you? Do you need to go home and be still, or have someone sit with you and talk you through it?”
- “How do you usually make decisions? Would you describe yourself as decisive? Do you need to sleep on it? What creates comfort or discomfort for you?”
- “Having asked that, how does your spouse process information? How are your styles the same as or different from each other?”
- “Think of a time when you had to make a major decision together. What was your style? Did you both argue, or did one capitulate to the other?”
- “How do you handle conflict as a couple? If I were a fly on the wall, what would I see? Does one of you get silent? Do you talk at each other, yell, or sit and work it through?”
- “Your emotions, including anger, can prevent you from making good decisions. How will you manage them? How can I help you do that?”
- “Think about the best part of yourself. How does that person handle conflict? How can I help you act that way? How do I help to ensure that you leave this process with self-respect?”
Again, if they describe their spouse inaccurately, the likelihood of misunderstanding may increase during the process, so it will be important to put in extra safeguards and let the team know.
Consider, too, in working with the clients on how to plan to handle their emotions in the process, whether to enlist the aid of a tool, like a Tools Worksheet or a poster that visually illustrates how to manage stressful emotions.
Finally, explain the difference between stating a position (i.e. a specific demand, such as “I want the house” or “I want permanent alimony”) and an interest-based goal (i.e. “I want a safe place for my kids to live” or “I want to be financially secure”). You may want to use the orange parable, or the “peeling an onion” metaphor. Or, depending on the literary interests of a particular client, you might refer him to Getting to Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, written by Roger Fisher and William Ury.
You will want to follow this up with a discussion of the collaborative protocols and why adhering to them ensures excellent communication and effective negotiations, which then produces fair and reasonable outcomes. One idea is to read the Code of Conduct out loud.
Stating positions often leads to the other spouse shutting down and not hearing the first. Once the spouses start to take such “closed” positions, the process can deteriorate very quickly. When one spouse stubbornly insists on a particular outcome, the other spouse will naturally be put into the defense position, and is likely to dig in their heels as well. Thus, focusing on positions hampers the collaborative process. Identifying big-picture goals at the beginning of the process will help the clients concentrate on the many concerns they are likely to have in common, and the team will work to continue to keep them focused on their interests throughout the process. Remember, the longer the clients remain “open,” the greater the likelihood of reaching agreement.
It is often helpful to work with the clients on identifying their interests and goals with the aid of a tool, like an Interest-Based Goals Worksheet or a poster that illustrates what such interests might look like. We will be sharing such tools in future posts.
About this week’s authors: Barb LoFrisco & Joryn Jenkins.
Dr. Barb LoFrisco empowers couples and individuals to overcome personal obstacles to improve their relationships. Since 2008 she has worked with over 200 couples using clinically tested and evidenced-based interventions. She has a doctorate degree in Counselor Education and Supervision, a master’s degree in Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, and a certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy; all awarded from the University of South Florida. In addition to being a licensed mental health counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist, Dr. LoFrisco is also an experienced expert speaker as a past regular guest on the Wealth and Wisdom radio show, as well as a presenter of wellness and mental health topics to both corporations and peers. Because research shows that unhealthy relationships can cause both emotional and physical stress, whereas healthy relationships can enhance and improve overall well being, she offers relationship counseling, sex therapy and individual counseling for anxiety, depression and relationship issues. For more information, please visit counselorbarb.com.
Joryn, attorney and Open Palm Founder, began her own firm here in Tampa after a 14-year career in law while also serving as a full-time professor in law at Stetson University. She is a recipient of the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen award, an honor bestowed upon those who have provided exceptional leadership to The American Inns of Court Movement. For more information on Joryn’s professional experience, take a look at her resume.
Source: Linda Solomon, LPC, LCDC, LMFT, Collaborative Facilitator
Personal Communication, January 2016