In the area of Family Law and Dispute Resolution, collaborative practice has emerged over the past several years as a constructive, respectful and effective way of supporting couples and families who are going through separation or divorce.
“Collaborative practice is a legal process through which couples who have decided to separate or divorce to work with a team of collaborative professionals,” says Shelley Behr, MSW, RSW, an individual, couples and family counsellor in Richmond, B.C. “This team can include lawyers, coaches like myself and even financial professionals, all of whom have special training in collaborative practice.”
The process, according to Behr, is a voluntary one that can help separating couples avoid uncertain court outcomes, while achieving a fair settlement that satisfies the specific needs of both parties as well as their children without the underlying threat of litigation. “The process is initiated when the couple signs a contract — known as a participation agreement — that binds each other to the process and disqualifies their respective lawyers’ rights to represent either one in any future family-related litigation.”
Shelley Behr says that because life transitions like separations and divorces are rarely easy, taking a collaborative approach creates an opportunity for practitioners who are involved with mediation and collaboration to provide more than practical support, legal counsel, and problem-solving strategies.
“There are often specific questions that we ask that are designed to create a deeper dialogue and address the psychological aspects of challenging and difficult moments,” she says. “So clients are more likely to feel better understood. They’re encouraged to express themselves and are able to grow and learn from beneath the conflict.”
These can include therapeutic questions that promote positive or transformative change and those that address emotional aspects of the separation. Others might speak to inner strengths and still others are asked to inspire wisdom and uncover deeper truths.
“The change-related questions may be divided into different categories, depending on the type of psychological change that they are meant to encourage and inspire,” says Behr. “So we might ask questions to deepen the dialogue so that we can address the emotional aspects of separation and divorce. There are, for example, some questions that lead to an acknowledgement of inner strengths and others that lead to insights or even lessons that can be learned through separation and the mediation or collaboration process.”
Shelley Behr notes that when such questions are asked in a sensitive, caring manner by lawyers, divorce coaches, or financial divorce specialists, “they bring authenticity and compassion into the collaborative proceedings and promote a dialogue based on a deeper understanding of the shared needs, interests, and concerns of both clients.”
When questions are asked that validate feelings of fear, anxiety, and pain associated with grief resulting from separation, they allow clients to access and express the feelings that underlie communication efforts. Sometimes there are fears related to previous experiences of abandonment and rejection, which can create anxiety when intimate ties are severed. They might also relate to the children’s well-being, a changing identity as a single person, and moving forward to create new homes.
“Separation-related grief can be related to memories of closeness and previous losses as well as dreams, plans and expectations associated with marriage and intimate relationships,” says Behr.
“When we ask clients questions that address these feelings, they get the opportunity to explore the beliefs, needs and concerns associated with these feelings and express them with greater clarity and sincerity. Then, once they’re expressed, an emotional space is created within them for more positive feelings and such forward-thinking perspectives and self-acceptance, compassion and a sense of relief. This can lead to a greater sense of peace.”
Questions related to inner-strength, says Behr, allow clients to access strengths associated with what she refers to as their “Higher Self.” These might include resilience, courage, competency, and a sense of basic goodness. “When clients can acknowledge and reconnect with these capacities,” she says, “they are better able to construct stories of strength about themselves, move forward in the collaborative process; and resolve conflict with a sense of perseverance, self-respect, trust, and even grace.”
Finally, Shelley Behr notes, questions aimed at helping clients identify kernels of truth about themselves also help them move from points of view to higher viewing points, which she says some consider an aspect of the spiritual dimension of separation and loss as well as the actual process of collaboration. These questions provide clients with the chance to reconnect with core values, beliefs, and life purposes that still seem relevant or that require some updating and revision.
“By realizing lessons that arise from life’s experiences,” says Behr, “clients have the opportunity to move beyond two familiar separation feelings in particular: guilt and shame. It is often these realizations that create a sense of mastery, autonomy, empowerment, and optimism in moving.
In short, collaborative practitioners can honor the full depth and breadth of mediation and collaboration as well as clients’ capacity for positive growth and authentic presence. “These types of questions support clients in opening their hearts and minds to experiencing themselves differently and deeply as well as recognizing their impact on each other, decision-making, and conflict resolution.”
In other words, she says, asking these specific types of questions serves to deepen the appreciation of the human elements of conflict, loss, and resilience during this transition in life. In addition, therapeutic questions also enable clients to create alternate stories of optimism, empowerment, and resourcefulness when discouragement and helplessness may seem to prevail.