How to Benefit from Brainstorming in Divorce Mediation

Today we will revisit the concept of “brainstorming” in divorce mediation and examine the conditions that support productive brainstorming sessions.  To “brainstorm” is to throw every possible solution to a problem at the wall (or at least onto a whiteboard) and see what sticks. This requires adopting a “no idea is a stupid idea” mindset. Even ideas with no chance of success sometimes contain the seed of an idea that will be very successful.

Cultivate a Calm and Open Mind

Before you can expect to have productive brainstorming sessions, it is important to properly set the stage. If you, like so many others going through a divorce, are overwhelmed with anxiety about basic needs like physical shelter and financial security, you may find it difficult to approach brainstorming with an open mind. This is just human nature. Taking a deep breath and focusing on the idea that there are many possibilities out there can be freeing. Some people find that practicing mindfulness provides comfort and stress relief.

If you need more help to get to a relaxed frame of mind, it is generally better to consult with an individual therapist before starting mediation than to expect your mediator to walk you through your anxiety during the process. Premediation coaching is also an option. Brainstorming works best when people are centered, focused, and calm.

Maintain Transparency to Facilitate Trust

We have posted several times about the potential benefits of the “caucus” in mediation. Caucuses provide each party with an opportunity to express concerns to a mediator in private before raising them with the other party. This can be a valuable tool, and it tends to be especially important for couples experiencing high conflict. As we discussed in our last post, divorce mediation can even be conducted entirely by caucus in particularly sensitive situations, such as when there is a history of domestic violence.

On the flip side of this, some mediators prefer not to caucus at all. They believe that separate meetings can subvert the goals of building trust and empathy between participants. Parties may also rely too much on the mediator instead of trusting their own abilities to discover mutually beneficial solutions. Staying in the room can require tolerating some discomfort, especially for couples starting from a place of mistrust. A mutual commitment to transparency, however, can increase trust.

It is only natural for one party to wonder what the other might be saying to the mediator in private. A good mediator knows that balance can often effectively counter such concerns. Mediators who caucus must be scrupulous about offering each party equal time. They must also strive to protect transparency by urging that anything said in caucus is shared to the greatest extent feasible. Still, for many couples, the most productive brainstorming happens when mediators minimize caucusing, and everyone stays in contact. This usually means staying in one room together. In a Zoom conference, it means that everyone keeps their audio and video turned on.

Identify Underlying Interests

Cultivating feelings of openness and trust can foster the development of creativity and collaboration. These are valuable tools for understanding each other’s underlying interests, a fundamental first step in productive brainstorming. It is critical to be able to distinguish between initial positions and underlying interests. The essential difference is that the former generally have only one solution, while the latter may have several. Solutions that are not immediately obvious can often manifest through productive brainstorming.

To use a common example, many spouses initially insist on keeping the family home. Often the person who wants to keep the home has been the primary caretaker for children and hopes to continue that role post-divorce. In this case the true underlying interests are plenty of parenting time and children who feel safe and stable. Keeping the family home can indeed be a good way to further such interests, but it is likely not the only way. Moving to a smaller home in the same school district, for example, might satisfy many of these concerns. Tackling the parenting schedule before the housing issue might alleviate fears as well.

Sometimes a demand to keep a family home reflects underlying financial interests. Perhaps the market is not currently seller friendly. This doesn’t mean that never selling the house is the only solution. An option like a phased buy-out or a deferred sale might work out better in the long run.

Focus on Mutually Beneficial Solutions

Understanding your spouse’s interests is a valuable brainstorming tool. Looking at your own positions from your spouse’s perspective can also help you better understand their interests.  You can then try to come up with ideas that move both sets of interests forward. You may even discover that your interests overlap more than you thought they did.

In the final analysis, divorce requires some degree of compromise. It just isn’t possible for both people—or even one person—to get everything they want in a divorce. Seeing the other side as an enemy, however, cements the idea that every issue must have one winner and one loser. The more that both parties can focus on solutions that offer mutual benefits, the better.

One of our caring and experienced mediators can tell you more about brainstorming and the many other benefits of mediation. Contact us today for an initial consultation.