Self Care, Stalling, or Stonewalling? How to work with pauses while avoiding passivity in your collaborative process.
A big draw of the collaborative process in divorce and non-divorce matters has to do with the ability of the parties themselves, rather than courts or other entities, to drive the pace and outcome of the resolution that is reached. The attorneys seek to assist their clients in being transparent, goal directed, and solution focused as the other neutrals serve to inform and contain the data and emotion that can interfere with resolution. For some parties, the pace feels perfect, where the deadlock and impasse from trying to resolve matters independently gives way to small but meaningful decisions that move resolution forward. As a professional seeking to support parties in their efforts to resolve conflict I have observed a pattern of pausing that often frustrates and befuddles both the disputing party and the other professionals working with or on behalf of a client. It can seem difficult to discern whether the delay in decision, information, or meeting scheduling has to do with honest efforts to regroup or whether it represents something less "collaborative". Here are some tips for what distinguishes each of these 3 patterns, and some strategies that are useful for professionals supporting parties involved in a collaborative process.
Self Care: This form of pause often follows emotional or high stakes decisions. Clients engaged in self care pauses probably showed strong emotion (in the form of tears, relief, anger, or fatigue) prior to their withdrawl. They may be proactive in their self-care efforts ("I'm away with rejuvenating with friends for the weekend but I promise I will get back to you by the end of next week") or they may be less clear with you (and themselves) for why they are finding it difficult to find the information that is needed for next steps ("I know I need to contact my benefits administrator about that but every time I sit down to write the email I just feel wiped out"). You can test the waters for whether the pause is related to a need for self care by naming what you see "Have you thought about doing something special to celebrate the hard work you are doing so far?" It may seem silly, but clients can benefit from hearing validation for the work they do to reach agreement and can benefit from being encouraged to celebrate their work even as things remain unresolved. Providing this permission can help shorten some of the delays that can arise when people unconsciously feel entitled to control without being able to articulate their own need for validation.
Stalling: Pauses in the process can unfold for a variety of reasons, but a very common one has to do with feeling paralyzed in a decision making process. Clients who are stalling are usually looking for a signal that will help them feel comfortable with a potential outcome. No one wants to make a bad decision, and so often in the collaborative process one decision has multiple implications. Some clients pause because they do need to see where their quarter is going to end up, but if you have excluded a delay as being tied to specific time related information, there is a high chance that your client is simply having a hard time sticking to a decision. This is where work with a coach familiar with decision making strategies can be useful. Even less sophisticated "pro & con" lists can be useful in this effort. The one I most enjoy with clients are decisional balance sheets which walk the client through how making a change and not making a change are equally momentous in their outcomes.
Stonewalling: While the collaborative process is a self-selected approach, this doesn't mean all parties are equally open to the approach as they may initially believe. Occasionally delays are explicit attempts to manipulate the outcome, punish an opposing party, or retaliate against a professional in the process (I couldn't stand that doctor so I was not about to trust his opinion and let her win with a settlement). For professionals in the process Stonewalling will feel pretty obvious, especially after the 5th unreturned call or wrong tax statement. When it is clear, to you, your client, and the team, it is best to name what you see and allow as honest a conversation as possible to be aired. There are times when all it takes is for some vented emotion to be shared, and other times when side mediation or coaching can resolve the hangup. When this isn't possible all parties are better served by ending or pausing a collaborative process rather than attempting to force conclusion when parties are not invested in settlement.
There is no crystal ball that will always tell you what the inner life of a client or party really is, but there are usually some context clues that can be useful in organizing the best response possible. Validating hard work, encouraging celebrations of small steps, guiding decision making, and naming outright resistance can all go a long way to improving the pace of collaborative processes.
Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP
Collaborative Coach Facilitator, Psychologist
Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, Entrepreneur, and Diversity Columnist.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, 2011-2014