Archive for May, 2017

The Power of Professional Vulnerability

It is normal for people working through a divorce to feel guarded. The perceived lack of trust and commitment that has built over time makes it nearly impossible for one side to listen to the other. Couples at this point have most often been under a perpetual onslaught of criticism, distrust, and contempt. The most common learned behavior is avoidance – they just do not pay attention, give credence, or listen to the other side.

It is this defensive posture that leads so many to court. The belief is that the court will provide them with a forum for venting their grievance. They feel like the court is the only place where fairness can prevail. It is the way to make their partner listen to them.

This is where professional vulnerability comes in. Whether it is in mediation or collaborative divorce, when couples have trouble communicating needs and vulnerabilities they jeopardize their ability to reach a settlement. The attuned professional can step in to make those points known. By demonstrating the an expression of a vulnerability that has been observed, couples can see and learn skills necessary to move forward with their process and with life.

But how is this done without interfering with the couple’s task of direct negotiation?

MEDICAL STYLE - Couple in Marriage Counseling Session.Dan Wile practices a process he calls collaborative therapy. It is a method by which the therapist steps in the place of either person and takes on the “voice” of that person to acknowledge the two aspects of a dispute. First with the recognition of a position or action of the other person and then with a complaint coupled with the feelings that the complaint engenders. This is a powerful tool in mediation or collaborative practice.

For example, a couple that is splitting up over financial issues may experience fear. In the attack and defensive mode both people lose access to their communication skills. Their focus becomes narrowed. They can only perceive their attack position which is to state their point and make sure it is heard. They cannot access their own resources that could enable them to listen to another point of view.

MEDICAL STYLE - Couple in Marriage Counseling Session.At this point, the professional might move next to the person making the “attack” statement. Having an understanding of facts and circumstance from prior conversations, the professional might state, looking at the spouse, “The way you take care of the kids is admirable and it is clear you care deeply for them. That is probably why some of these expenses have happened. Yet the level ofdebt is scary and makes it hard to live with any degree of certainty.” The professional would then validate the statement to see if that was an accurate representation.

The same process goes to the other side as well making sure that both sides hear the positive intentions of the other and noting that there is a major complaint that has brought them to this point.

This is not therapy. It is not an attempt to heal the marriage. It is a place to open up the couple to some vulnerabilities of fear, anger, despair, and other emotions that might otherwise keep them from reaching their goal of a settlement. Like the One Last Look™ process we share with couples at the edge of divorce, sometimes it can open up a whole avenue of options for communication that they did not think were possible at this point in the relationship.

Professionals can act as teachers of communication methods in divorce situations. They can demonstrate the strategy of sharing feelings, staying as neutral as possible. Then they can help the couple to take a complaint, or a “demand” as they perceive it, and transform that into a need which they both probably share.

Cart ButtonUsing this process can help couples in divorce conflict to understand that all the blame and criticism are indications of needs for each person, both practical and emotional. By making these explicit and tangible, the solutions become workable.

Our common metaphor to help couples is to ask if their stated need can be put into a cart or added to a math equation. If they do not fit that criteria, then it is an emotion-based cry for something else.

Dan Wile PDF We are sharing an article from Dan Wile’s web site that is a very brief overview of his process. While therapists use this in practice for couple interventions, these patterns are often used in all our lives when we are attentive to the issues confronting us in a conflict situation. Everyone at one time or another has found themselves commenting as if they were the other person. It might have started as something like, “So I see that what I did made you feel … and if I had done … you might feel differently about this situation.” It is a matter of perceptive listening.

One caution is that when this is used in mediation or collaborative, it is more powerful to do both sides of the issue for the same event. That avoids the perception that the professional is taking a side in the matter. Equal voice to both sides builds trust that the matter is fully understood while avoiding added hurt or uneasiness within the negotiation.


Armand and Robbin D’Alo