In our most recent post, we discussed how some divorcing couples might want to take advantage of a more structured mediation process. We mentioned pre-mediation coaching as one aspect of such a process. So what exactly is pre-mediation coaching, who offers it, and who might possibly benefit from it?
What is Pre-Mediation Coaching?
In pre-mediation coaching, a prospective mediation participant meets with the mediator or another professional to prepare for the mediation. The main goals of the preparation are alleviating anxiety regarding the mediation process, rehearsing good communication techniques, and building comfort with the idea of formulating proposals and counter-proposals. Role-playing with a coach can help the participant prepare for issues that may arise during the mediation and practice skills that will help the participant stay on track. These skills include not taking the other party’s positions personally, slowing down and responding logically, and maintaining a focus on the facts and issues at hand.
Couples approaching divorce have sometimes developed patterns of emotional reactivity that are difficult to disrupt. Each party may assume ill-will on the part of the other and fear personal attack, triggering defensive and angry automatic responses. Some spouses become adept at “pushing one another’s buttons,” without even necessarily realizing how their own delivery styles contribute to reactivity. Attempts to work out the details of a divorce naturally tend to exacerbate these types of patterns. While divorce mediators are trained to help participants regulate their emotions and stay on track during sessions, it often takes some time for high-conflict couples to get into the right mind set for this. Pre-mediation coaching can help speed along the process. Role-play can be very helpful because it gives participants a chance to practice rephrasing statements in more positive terms as well as stepping back from immediate emotional reactions to respond thoughtfully and logically.
Who Provides Mediation Coaching?
Some mediators personally provide pre-mediation coaching to each client a few days before the first session. Others offer a more abbreviated form of coaching by addressing the clients together at the beginning of the first session and giving each of them a chance to ask questions and express concerns. Parties with a high level of conflict are likely to benefit most from an in-depth session a few days before mediation begins.
Mediators must strive for balance at all times, and if they are providing their own coaching, it’s important that they spend equal time with each client. Not all mediators are comfortable with this, particularly when dealing with divorcing couples who have serious communication issues. Some mediators feel that meeting individually with divorce clients when one or both spouses have high-conflict personalities can make it more difficult for the mediator to maintain the essential neutrality and objectivity required during sessions. Coaching can be counter-productive if a client spends coaching time trying to persuade the mediator to take the client’s side.
Some mediators prefer to have another professional handle pre-mediation coaching, either as a general rule, or in certain particularly challenging circumstances. Independent coaching may be offered by other mediators, by consulting attorneys, or by mental health professionals. The best choice of professional may depend on the needs of the particular participants.
Some attorneys include coaching as part of their mediation consultation services. Meeting with an attorney for coaching offers the benefit of ensuring thorough legal preparation as well as more general preparation. This can be a good choice for clients who feel relatively comfortable with the idea of mediation but need some help preparing and rehearsing different proposals. If you choose to let your consulting attorney handle the coaching, be careful not to focus too much on preparing a “winning” strategy. Coaching should focus on collaborative communication and preparation of alternative positions.
Many mental health professionals also handle mediation coaching. Turning to a mental health professional can be especially helpful if one or both spouses has a diagnosable mental health issue, such as a clinical level of anxiety or depression, or a personality disorder that may impede collaborative communication. In these more severe situations, it might be helpful for the client struggling with the mental health issues to have more than one coaching session. The focus of coaching, however, should be on teaching the client specific skills to successfully navigate the mediation. Therapy focused on resolving more deep-seated problems may be ongoing before and/or after the mediation, but it will not necessarily address the immediate objective of managing the mediation process.
Who Can Benefit from Pre-Mediation Coaching?
Coaching can be helpful for anyone contemplating divorce mediation, not just those who are planning on using a more structured process. Making and adjusting proposals during mediation sessions requires the ability to see the other person’s point of view and entertain multiple possibilities for resolution. This kind of perspective can be difficult for anyone approaching divorce to maintain. It can be very disappointing to realize that you may not be able to get your former spouse to agree to whatever it is that you have your heart most set on, and the more you are able to make adjustments without getting sidetracked by high emotion, the more successful you are likely to be. The more difficulty a couple has had with communication in the past, the more they are likely to benefit from pre-mediation coaching.
Pre-mediation coaching can also be helpful in balancing pre-existing power differentials between a couple. If either spouse feels intimidated by the other, or believes themselves to be in an inferior bargaining position, coaching can bolster confidence. In our next post, we’ll talk a little more about power imbalances in divorce, and how these may affect mediation.