One of the things collaborative professionals and mediators do is help people think through all of the elements of the problem so there is room for resolution.

Sometimes when people come into a mediation or Collaborative process, the problems they face are so complex, so compressed and entwined that they seem unsolvable in their current form.

When this happens, it becomes impossible for anybody to hold in their minds what the problem is, what is important to them, all the “what ifs” and also the potential solutions. Not surprisingly, people get very anxious and angry because their problem seems insurmountable and they believe themselves to be stuck.

As a mediator or Collaborative professional, one thing we can do is listen totheir problem; understand what they are talking about, how they see it,and what their concerns are; and then help them divide it up intomanageable pieces. I often say, “Let’s look at the problem as though none of those ‘what ifs’ happened.” Let’s look and see if we can understand what we’re dealing with, if we’re dealing with the same assumptions. Then, once we have atentative agreement in place, let’s look at the “what ifs” on at a time and decide how to handle them.

For example, if we’re working on a support issue, the “what ifs” might be:

  • What if I lose my job?
  • What if there is a substantial loss of income?
  • What if someone doubles their income?
  • What if they become disabled?
  • What if one of us remarries?
  • What if we move?

This is a fairly standard list of concerns people have and which we work through one at a time: “If one of those “what ifs” happens, what will the result be? Do we want to decide that now? If somebody’s income is reduced by 30%, is that a “what if” that will trigger renegotiations, will it trigger a formulaic reduction in support that we determine now, or is there some other strategy that we’re going to utilize to solve that problem if it arises?”

Sometimes there are also issues about the exchange of information, both now and later, especially when there are trust issues. How will we make sure both people feel they have reliable information which they can use to make decisions in the future?

The court system isn’t going to deal in “what ifs.” Figuring out the “what ifs” is one of the things we can do in a non-litigation scenario. Breaking down the problem into manageable pieces, creates a lot more space around each of the pieces to move them around and to think about them in a more relaxed way. Being more relaxed leads to more creativity and better problem solving – and better cooperation.

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