By Paula J. Swensen, Esq.
As family law collaborators and mediators, we know all too well how the emotional aspects of a divorce can threaten to derail what often begins as a stable and effective process toward a peaceful resolution of our clients’ family law disputes.
Clients come to us for help in resolving their family law matters with the hope and intention of staying out of court. This is a laudable goal, and most everyone comes with the highest intention of achieving that goal. But then, something quite predictable happens… and if we collaborative professionals are not ready for it, the entire process can be unexpectedly hijacked, thereby posing a threat to the successful outcome for our clients and their families. The ‘something’ that invariably shows up is our clients’ deeply held emotions about the unraveling of their marriages, including all of the uncertainty and fear that accompany such momentous changes in a person’s life circumstances. As we know, once strong emotions enter the picture, it is quite challenging to remain in option-creation and problem-solving mode during the collaborative or mediation process. However, that is what we must do, relying effectively upon our best kept secret, the “neutrals”.
Who Are the Neutrals?
We refer to the “neutrals” as those members of the collaborative team that are exactly that — neutral. They are not advocating for either client, but rather, they serve to facilitate the successful outcome of a collaborative divorce through their professional roles as: financial neutral, child specialist, or as a single coach for both clients.
Why So Many People?
We are often asked, “why do I need so many people in my collaborative process”? Understandably, prospective clients new to the collaborative process are wary of paying “so many” different professionals on the collaborative team. It soon becomes clear to our clients just how invaluable the neutrals are to the successful outcome of a collaborative divorce. Because the effective use of neutrals often dictates the likelihood of success, they are indeed, the “best kept secret” of the collaborative process.
Most clients do not think twice about the necessity of employing and paying for a lawyer to advocate on their behalf in a divorce. While we lawyers enjoy a vital role on the team, it is often the work of the neutrals that makes the difference between a successful outcome or one that falls short. Why? Because sometimes when clients get stuck in the mud over a challenging issue, their advocates get stuck right along with them. While this is certainly not desired, it is not uncommon for an advocate to get caught up in the strong emotions of his or her client during the divorce process. It often takes someone who is not advocating for either client to better explore and explain options for breaking an impasse so that the matter may continue to move forward. In this way, the neutral can play an instrumental role to enable the clients to reach a mutually-satisfying resolution.
When and How Are the Neutrals Best Utilized?
Question: When is the best time to utilize the neutral professionals? Answer: Early and often. It is highly recommended that the neutral professionals be made part of the collaborative team at the commencement of collaborative process. In this way, they show up at the “collaborative table” as equal members of the collaborative team along with the lawyers. This pays dividends throughout the process as the neutrals are vested, from the outset, with no less credibility and gravitas than their legal counterparts. This allows the clients to have confidence in the input of the neutrals from the very beginning.
Our neutral professionals fulfill a vital role when it comes to managing and overcoming the emotional obstacles presented in a divorce. For example, where an impasse can arise over the amount of support or whether the couple should sell the family home, the financial neutral can often be the secret weapon in helping the couple to break the impasse. Where a spouse can get bogged down in all of the emotion surrounding wanting to stay in the marital residence, the financial neutral can explain the numbers in such a way as to help a client to visualize whether staying in the home presents a viable option or not. The input of the neutral is future-focused and geared toward helping to solve the problem, rather than in furtherance of any position. The coach or child specialist operates in the same manner. They bring credibility, option-creation and problem-solving to the table in a way that the clients can trust in their unbiased input, especially if the neutrals have been involved from the outset of the collaborative process.
Neutrals-The Secret to Success
As has been proven, the collaborative model works so well because all of the members of the collaborative team play a critical role in the success of the collaborative process. We know that emotions can run high during a divorce. We also know that emotions can get in the way of rationality, and the ability to access the cognitive areas of our brain, which is critical for effective problem-solving. That is precisely why the use of neutrals is one of the best-kept secrets to success. As impartial and unbiased members of the team, they are best-suited to help clients move past the emotion of a given impasse, and to focus on feasible options to obtain an optimal outcome for their families.