The Key to Successfully Working with High-Conflict Couples: Stick to the Basics!

{4:30 minutes to read} The heat is rising. Tension is mounting. A crossroad emerges in the mediation session, and it’s unclear which way it will go. Will it turn productive or combative? The best way to ensure a productive session with high-conflict couples is to stick to the basics.

There are 4 principles that will help you through the most challenging sessions with clients:

1. Communication & Understanding

It is important that I, as the mediator, convey and communicate an understanding of where the couple “is” presently. I demonstrate my understanding of where they are coming from and also affirm where they are, as individuals. I do not try to push the couple closer together or attempt to change “where they are.” The most critical component is that I demonstrate to them that I understand that they disagree and that this is all right.

2. Motivation

With high-conflict couples, it is useful to explore and to help them articulate their motivation to resolve a conflict. By articulating their reasons for wanting to resolve the conflict, and, therefore, understanding it more fully, the couple puts “gas in the tank.” As a result, the couple often finds more stamina and commitment to push through the difficulty of resolving hard problems. The mediator can refer back to the expressed motivation at later difficult moments in order to help the parties continue progressing forward.

3. Transparency

As the mediator, it is often helpful to share what I am thinking and feeling during my sessions with couples. I do this to engage the couple in mutual decision-making about the trajectory of a session.

For example, it is sometimes unclear whether to move on or to continue mediating a difficult issue between the couple. Instead of making an independent decision as the mediator, I involve the couple in my thought process and negotiate with them about how to solve a particular problem.

If an issue arises that brings up considerable upsets for the parties, sometimes it feels like too much for them and they will tell me to “just move on.” That creates a double bind for me as the mediator. On one hand, if I ignore the obvious feeling in the room, I know we will be sweeping an elephant under the rug—and I know that elephants don’t stay under rugs. On the other hand, if I ignore their directive, they may feel that I have disconnected from them. There is nowhere for me to go unless I tell them my dilemma and work with them to structure our way through the swirling emotions to reach some foothold where they feel able to move on.

4. The What & The How

In every mediation session, the discussion revolves around concrete content—e.g., parenting, cash flow, etc.—in other words, “The What.” The What is the subject matter of divorce. “The How” is the process, the way we work together to move through conflict. It is commonplace to make assumptions about how we’re working together without making them explicit. Often, the first potential platform for agreement between the couple is an agreement on The How, i.e., agreeing on a non-adversarial process and being in mediation together.

Working with high-conflict couples can be challenging. By following these basic principles, mediators can help the couple sort out their conflict trap and be more collaborative and forward-thinking. During extremely difficult moments in session, I come back to the present and ask the couple what is going on for each of them, and then how we might move forward. From there, the cycle of productivity picks up where it left off.

Have you worked with high-conflict couples? If so, what strategies do you find effective?

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