Making collaborative law divorce joint sessions productive

Here are some general guidelines to help make collaborative law divorce joint sessions (also called “four-way meetings”) as productive as possible. Some find it helpful to review these guidelines prior to each joint session. These are things you can do to help yourself.

Before a Joint Session.
You will have a meeting with your lawyer prior to every joint session. That meeting will usually be a day or two prior to the joint session. The first meetings will take a little longer than the later meetings, because your lawyer will orient you to the process. Later meetings will tend to be shorter; depending on the agenda, sometimes there will only be a quick check-in by telephone. The goal is to ensure that you and your lawyer are both fully prepared to make the next joint session as productive as possible.

There will often be homework between joint sessions. If there is homework, it needs to be done. If you could not complete your homework, or if it is a bad day, call your lawyer to talk about rescheduling the session. It is better to reschedule than to proceed if you are not ready.

On the day of the joint session, arrange your schedule so you can arrive on time. Be sure to ask for directions if you are unfamiliar with the location. Joint sessions require the coordination of lots of schedules, and can be expensive on account of the paid professionals who are present. Being on time shows respect to everyone there, and makes the most productive use of everyone’s time.

If you have time constraints, inform everyone as early as possible. Joint sessions can sometimes run over, and knowing time constraints in advance allows for planning.

During a Joint Session.
Much of the work in a collaborative case occurs during the joint session. Joint sessions are where discussions about the process occur, where discussions about necessary information occur, and where people work together to solve their problems. In order for this to occur, everyone in the room should feel that they can safely express themselves on what matters.

Part of the process is getting clarification about what really matters. For example, someone may think they need a certain amount of child support. But the need behind that is not “child support”, but being able to provide for themselves and their children. The key to success in the collaborative process is focusing on and expressing your needs or interests. It may not be helpful to focus on specific ways to achieve a particular outcome. The reason is that there may be other ways to address your needs and interests, as you work towards a constructive and acceptable agreement for you and your family. You may discover a better solution if you are open to different approaches and allow everyone to brainstorm.

People often ask how to behave during joint sessions. The most important thing is to be authentic and to engage in a discussion about what matters to you and what matters to the other party. Remember, everyone has needs, and the needs have to be addressed to get to an agreement. Here are some guidelines.

  • Practice “active listening.” Listen fully while the other person speaks, and try to listen for the needs and interests that are behind the statements that are being made.
  • Perhaps the most difficult thing for most people is not interrupting when the other party or his or her lawyer is speaking.  However, this is important to ensure that everyone can be fully heard. This process only works when all persons are heard – that means both sides. You will also have a full and equal opportunity to speak on every issue presented for discussion.  Also, try not to spend time on planning your reply until the speaker has finished. It is hard to listen if you are also trying to formulate a response.
  • Try to understand what the other is really saying. Focus especially on the concerns, fears, needs, and interests behind the words that are being used.
  • Verify how accurately you understand what the speaker said by restating your understanding in different words. Remember, you can say, “I understand” without meaning “I agree.”
  • Ask for clarification of points that aren’t completely clear to you.
  • When speaking, do so in a manner that is respectful to everyone present – including you. Here are some examples:
    • When negotiating or talking to the group, include everyone in the room. Try not to exclude anyone.
    • When talking about someone who is in the room, refer to him or her by his or her name; Try to avoid “he” or “she.”
    • If you feel like something inaccurate has been stated, simply seek clarification or correct the misunderstanding.
  • If you believe you have not been fully or accurately heard, speak up and say so. For example, you may want to say: “That is not exactly what I meant. I meant ….” Just as it is important for others to be heard, you too must be heard.
  • If you need some time to formulate your thoughts, say so.  If you need some help formulating your thoughts into a statement or question that will be respectful, you may take a time out and discuss it with your lawyer.
  • Try to speak for yourself only.  It is easy to make wrong assumptions about what others may be thinking or feeling. Clarifying questions are appropriate.
  • When describing what is important to you, try to use “I” statements instead of accusatory “you” statements. Using “I” statements, you can state what you observe and what you feel. Ask neutral clarifying questions. State or ask what you would like to do about it.Example: “I noticed that the children were not with you twice this month when they were scheduled.” (What you observed.) “I feel disrespected when an agreement is not followed.” (How you felt.) “I think the children are disappointed if they have scheduled time with you that does not happen.” (What you believe.) “I would like to learn what your perspective may be?” (Neutral clarifying question.) “I would like us to work on a solution that would not result in the children being disappointed in that way.” (What you would like to do about it.)
  • If either side uses language that blames or finds fault with the other persons in the room, the discussion will usually not move forward, because it will tend to make the other person defensive.  Accordingly, try not to use language that is blaming and accusatory.
  • Similarly, try to avoid using loaded terms like “fair” and “unfair” when describing various options.  Words like “acceptable,” “workable,” “agreeable,” and their converses, “unacceptable,” “unworkable,” “not agreeable,” are preferable because they allow room for reasonable people to differ.

At any time, if you feel overwhelmed or if you simply need a break, you can ask for a recess. If something is not working for you, tell your lawyer so it can be addressed.

Contributing author J. Mark Weiss, Esq. is recognized and respected as a leader in Washington for his expertise in divorce matters in general, and collaborative divorce in particular. He is one of a handful of attorneys in the greater Seattle area who have ended highly successful careers in litigation to become even more successful in non-adversarial dispute resolution. Mark has received numerous honors, including “Attorney of the Year” by the Family Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association in 2005, and “Super Lawyer” by Washington Law and Politics magazine, and the highest possible rating by Avvo. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

This article is not legal advice. You should consult an attorney or if you have legal or financial questions that relate to your specific divorce.

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