How to Build an Effective Team
Deborah R. Eisenberg, Edward Goldberg and Abby Golomb Cole
Case Illustration of a Well-Coordinated Team
Mist hung heavily on a chilly New England morning, as six of us sat around a conference table, considering financial projections for a divorcing couple. The six included two lawyers, a divorce coach, a financial specialist, and the divorcing husband and wife, Max and Shirley. The divorcing couple was at retirement age, both had health issues, and neither expected to continue working. No matter how the financial specialist rearranged the numbers, it was clear that both Max and Shirley would end up broke in a matter of years. She would run out of money first, unless he agreed to share some of his social security income. This notion incensed Max, and he stormed out of the conference, shouting, “I’ll see you all in court!”
The Divorce Coach gave chase, catching up with him in the parking lot. For fifteen minutes Max fumed about how his wife had never contributed financially to the marriage, and how unjust it was that he should have to share the benefits of his hard work with her. The coach gave him room to vent, but then coaxed him back into the building, telling him that the precipitation was ruining her hair. They spoke for another 15 minutes in a small conference room, until Max was ready to return to negotiation with the rest of the team. He had stated his anger, felt heard, and been given enough time to calm down and be able to resume a less emotional and more rational conversation.
Meanwhile, awkward questions floated over the rest of the team. Should they wait for him to return? Was his behavior so destructive as to sabotage the prospect of collaboration? And should his lawyer stay in the room during his absence? Eventually the husband’s lawyer excused herself. Shirley’s lawyer stayed with her client and the financial neutral, who used the time to answer questions about the various financial scenarios and what they might mean for Shirley.
When the team reconvened, both husband and wife were more able to consider their options for the future. The attorneys helped insure that their needs and interests were accurately reflected in the agreement being brokered. Shirley had a good enough grasp on the numbers that she could better advocate for herself, and Max was able to transcend his resentment enough to agree to help his wife financially.
This interdisciplinary team worked well together in a crisis, averting the collapse of the collaborative process and bringing both parties to an agreement that felt comfortable. In this chapter we will explore the necessary components of a functional interdisciplinary team and suggest ways of enhancing professional collaboration.
Standing at the Portal: How Lawyers Assemble Collaborative Teams
The divorce in the above illustration was initiated by the wife. After much soul searching and inner conflict, she summoned up the courage to pick up the phone and schedule a consultation with a divorce attorney. At the consultation, the attorney learned the following: the couple had been married for 42 years, but had lived apart for 10 years. Shirley, age 65, without a significant earning history, and unemployed for many years, had a series of health problems. Her husband, Max, age 64, had been living with a girlfriend for several years. He had been voluntarily giving Shirley monthly support payments. He also had significant health issues and was also nearing retirement age. Not surprisingly, Shirley was concerned that her financial support would end soon and she would not be able to live comfortably on her anticipated social security benefit. Except for sending/receiving monthly support checks, the parties had little or no communication. Clueless about her husband’s assets, Shirley was unable to articulate her goals for a financial settlement other than wanting to protect herself. What she did make clear, however, was that she feared “pissing off” her husband by “rocking the boat” with a divorce action and desperately wanted to reach a fair resolution without going to court.
Inviting the Client’s Spouse to Join the Team
After consultation with her attorney, Shirley decided that collaboration best met her needs. For Shirley and her attorney, the decision to collaborate was easy. Getting a client’s spouse to walk through the collaborative door can be much more challenging, because the attorney has minimal control over the spouse’s choice of attorney or process. In the above illustration, to help influence Max to participate in a collaborative divorce, the attorney gave Shirley a brochure developed by her collaborative practice group, which contained a listing of the attorney members. After discussing the content of the brochure and answering Shirley’s questions about collaborative divorce, the attorney suggested that she (1) let her husband know she was seeking a divorce, (2) give him a copy of the brochure, and (3) suggest that he select a collaboratively trained attorney from the list offered in the brochure (the attorney further highlighted those attorneys with practices conveniently located near the husband’s workplace). In many cases this effort is sufficient to bring the spouse on board. In the above illustration, it was not. Despite the fact that Shirley sent Max a copy of the collaborative divorce brochure, and despite repeated requests over the following months that he retain an attorney, he failed to do so. After discussions between Shirley and her attorney, another plan was launched: The attorney drafted a divorce complaint as if Shirley were pro se, and had a state marshal serve Max with the complaint, as is ordinarily done in a litigated divorce. Although this action resulted in what Shirley feared most, i.e. “pissing off” her husband, ultimately Max not only retained counsel, but selected one of the collaborative lawyers near his place of employment, as initially suggested by Shirley’s attorney.
Our assumption to this point has been that the collaborative divorce began in an attorney’s office. Since attorneys play a representative role, their access to the opposing party is limited. However, the same conversation can begin with a financial or mental health professional. In these cases, the professional may have more influence on the selection of the attorneys. For instance, when couple’s therapy fails and the couple agrees to divorce, they often ask their marital therapist for advice and referrals before proceeding to divorce. Mental health and financial professionals who typically act as neutrals do not “represent” either party, so they are free to speak with both parties and make whatever suggestions they deem appropriate.
Note: If you are a member of a practice group and do not feel comfortable “steering” your client’s spouse to a particular attorney or the rules of your group prohibit it, furnishing your client with a list of collaboratively trained attorneys in your group to give to his/her spouse can be extremely helpful to the spouse. If you prefer having more direct impact on the spouse’s selection of an attorney, then it would be useful to consider the following: Which attorney would be most compatible with the personality, gender, temperament and needs of your client’s spouse? Which attorney is geographically convenient to the spouse’s residence or workplace? Which attorney would work best with your client in a team setting? With which attorney do you work effectively? It may be useful to discuss several options with your client, with an eye towards optimizing team effectiveness.
Welcoming the Other Attorney Team Member
In the very best of circumstances, you will have some impact over the selection of the spouse’s attorney, but in many cases, you will have no input. In either scenario, however, once you learn who your client’s spouse retained as a collaborative attorney, it is crucial to have a meaningful conversation, by telephone or in person, with the other attorney. This phase of the process is important because it provides an opportunity for attorney-colleagues to (1) exchange important information about the clients and the facts of the case, (2) determine similarities and differences in their approaches and resolve any discrepancies that could hamper the process (3) demonstrate collaborative behaviors that will hopefully, set the stage for effective team meetings and (4) select the other team members.
Sharing information and assessing the case
During the initial conversation, attorneys should assess the needs of the case and the unique attributes of the clients. What are the clients like? Are there power imbalances? Are they combative? Angry? Depressed? Impulsive? Financially savvy or uninformed? Emotionally fragile? Are addiction issues present in this case? Is there any known or suspected infidelity? Is there a history of abuse? Are there health issues? Or mental health issues?
And what are the particular facts in the case? How many children? What ages? Do they have special needs? Will the parents be living in close proximity to each other? How close to retirement are the clients? What are the assets? Liabilities? Are there serious debt or other financial issues? Are there assets which may be considered non-marital? Are the assets difficult to value or understand? What about income and other forms of compensation? Will earning capacity be an issue?
Formulating The Team Approach Early On
Working as a team is easiest when professional members are well acquainted, either through a practice group or professional experience. Understanding the other attorney’s collaborative approach and style is particularly important if the attorneys do not belong to the same practice group. It is necessary to find out, for example, if one or both attorneys use a road map and if both do, which one the team will use; if both attorneys use the same collaborative agreement and, if not, which one will be used, and whether a coach and a financial professional will be required. Finally, attorneys must discuss whether other professionals, such as a business valuator or a child specialist will be needed.
Many collaborative attorneys require the use of a coach on all cases. Coaches are particularly helpful in dealing with significant communication problems, which are endemic among divorcing couples. Some couples communicate by yelling, while others may slide subtle insults and digs into an otherwise civil conversation. We have seen couples who seem addicted to arguing with each other, and others who seem to fall in to the roles of headstrong leader and tearful victim. Some people cannot discuss their divorces without crying, while for others, tears become a trigger for hostile rebukes. Other common communication problems include interrupting, speaking for the other person rather than for oneself, and showing disrespect through nonverbal cues like sighing, eye-rolling or mocking gestures.
The decision to use a child specialist can be thornier, as many divorce coaches consider their role to include representation of the children and their interests in the divorce. In our community, child specialists are called in for special needs children, and in cases where each family member has his/her own complex psychological profile. The great advantage of including a child specialist on the team is that he/she will meet directly with the children, and bring their voices into the evolving parenting plan. Expense may be a factor, however, and some divorcing parties may balk at the need for an extra professional on the team.
In determining whether a financial professional will be needed, attorneys should ask themselves the following questions: Are the financial aspects in your case such that a financial professional would be useful? Does one party need more help than the other in understanding the financial ramifications of what is being presented or proposed? Would it be more efficient from a cost perspective to have one qualified professional gather all the financial data, format it and get it to both attorneys? Are there unusual circumstances that might require the use of a forensic accountant, a business valuation specialist, or a pension expert? Are there complicated tax issues that would require the services of a CPA? Do the facts and circumstances call for the use of a financial professional as a neutral, similar to the role the mental health professional plays as the neutral coach? As a neutral the financial professional can meet with the couple or either party as needed. However, it should be noted that if retained as a neutral, the financial professional cannot work with either party post-divorce. Alternatively, one of the attorneys may feel that her/his client will require help throughout the divorce process and beyond to build a sound financial plan after the agreement has been signed, in which case the financial professional would not serve as a neutral in the case.
Financial professionals come in many shapes and sizes. For example, FINRA (Financial Industries Regulatory Authority) lists 95 different financial designations. One designation, however, applies very specifically to specialized training in the financial aspects of divorce: The CDFA – Certified Divorce Financial Analyst.
In any case, a thorough understanding of the case and the players is important in helping to put together the best team, and to optimize the collaborative process. Further, it is the lawyers’ responsibility to understand the roles of the other professionals and to use them wherever appropriate. Coordinating with a multidisciplinary team may represent a departure from your experience as a divorce attorney, but using the expertise of highly qualified professionals in allied fields and taking an open-minded and solutions-oriented approach enhances the process and eases the admittedly difficult task ahead.
Fostering a Team Culture
To build a good and effective team, start by being the best team mate that you can be. The initial dialog you have with the other attorney provides an important opportunity to establish open communication, to designate roles and responsibilities and to listen to and appreciate input from a fellow team member – all characteristics of a well-coordinated team. If you have no experience working with the other attorney, begin by giving him/her the benefit of the doubt. Since the team approach is still relatively new and you are playing on a new field, it might be helpful to assume that you and your colleague are still learning as you go, that you are both eager to learn new skills and will work well together within this process.
If you have had a bad experience working with the other attorney, you need to be mindful before you proceed. Sometimes this means being aware of your own biases, and keeping them in check. Sometimes this means airing your concerns about working together before you proceed. If you doubt your own ability to overcome your history of anger, frustration, hurt and the like, then you may need to decline or withdraw from the case.
Note: These authors strongly recommend that ALL team members be fully qualified to participate in a collaborative team. If your client’s spouse retains an attorney who has not been collaboratively trained, but represents to you that he is willing to participate collaboratively, kindly, but firmly, say no. Alternatively, you might suggest working cooperatively, but not formally as a collaborative process.
D. Selecting the Other Team members
After assessing the clients’ personalities and the facts, circumstances, and nuances of the case it should become apparent what other team members will be needed: Is a financial professional needed? In what capacity? As a neutral on board for the whole case, or as a forensic or a consultant to help with one particular aspect of the case? Do we need one coach or two? Will custody and parenting access be so hotly debated that a child specialist or a guardian ad litem will be needed? In making such choices at this stage, lawyers may likely be bound by the policies of their practice groups (some practice groups use a one-coach model, others may use a two-coach model and others may not require either but suggest the use of coach(es) as an option) and the parties’ financial circumstances, i.e. whether they can afford to pay the fees of one or more additional professionals on the team.
Note: If the use of a coach is questionable, these authors favor erring on the side of caution and including a coach on the team initially. It is a rare case in which there are no emotional or psychological issues present. It is our experience that if a coach is brought into the team later on to “fix” the process after it begins to derail, it is probably too late for the coach to be effective, and it signifies to the clients that they are failing in their attempts to collaboratively dissolve their marriage. A better course is to bring a coach into the team initially and if the clients truly do not need the support of the mental health professional, the coach can be dismissed after the first or second meeting, to be called back only if necessary or to meet with the clients individually or jointly outside the collaborative sessions.
Assuming that a coach will be a part of the team, who do you recommend for that position? Of course you will want an experienced mental health professional, who has completed mediation and basic collaborative training; the more advanced trainings they have participated in, the better. The coach has to be neutral, with no previous knowledge of the parties, much as they may clamor to engage their marital or individual therapist. Certainly it helps if the attorneys are familiar with the coach, and have had professional and/or personal experiences with him/her. The interdisciplinary practice group is tremendously helpful in building these kinds of relationships, and in helping attorneys to assess the relative merits of the different coaches in their group.
For instance, some coaches may be more directive and active; others may be gentler and more nurturing. If your client is loud, agitated or impulsive, you may want a strong divorce coach to help manage him/her. Some clients need direct confrontation, for instance when they are drinking heavily or engaged in other self-destructive compulsive behaviors. Alternatively, when clients are immobilized by sadness, loss or indecision, they may need a softer touch to stir them from their passivity into action. At the clinical level, some coaches have more knowledge of special needs children; some may have devoted their psychotherapy practices to adolescents, or they may have raised children of their own. Matching the coach to the team enhances the likelihood of success in collaboration.
Gender issues also make a difference in choosing a coach. If both lawyers are female, the husband can easily find himself feeling alienated, marginalized, stereotyped or castrated. A male coach can make all the difference in helping him to feel part of the team. Alternatively, the wife may value a female coach if the rest of the team is male, or if she has felt victimized or hurt by her husband and/or by the decision to get divorced.
Elsewhere in this volume is a lengthy discussion of the two-coach model, the role of the child specialist, and the role of the financial neutral, so we will not delve into the discussion of whether or not those professionals are needed. Rather, we want to encourage attorneys to be thoughtful about the match and dynamics among team members. Think about your personal comfort level with the other professionals on the team, and consider which coaches you are most willing to be vulnerable with. There are times when the coach needs to confront another team member, and help him/her to evaluate his/her personal contribution to the problem. Needless to say, trust and respect are necessary predicates in the choice of the coach. The reverse of course can happen, when coaches become either too allied with one party and therefore are not actually neutral, or when coaches begin to slip into an advising/legal role; then the coach becomes the focus of the professional conversation.
Hard as you may try to create a cohesive and functional team, it may turn out that some professionals simply cannot work together. Personality conflicts, stylistic differences, and long-held grudges stemming from litigation experiences may interfere with collaboration, or new resentments may develop in the nascent collaborative community. This creates a significant ethical challenge. While many professionals are eager to grow their collaborative practices, and may be tempted to take every case that comes along, it is important to first consider whether or not you can work collaboratively with the other members of the team. Some attorneys and coaches will recuse themselves from working on cases where they believe they simply will not be able to collaborate with the extant team members. Strong negative emotions toward fellow professionals have no place in the collaborative conference room, and will only poison the efforts of those who want to work together.
But this is unusual. Most team dynamics can be discussed and massaged in order to create a functional team. As you are standing at the portal of a new collaboration, the most important move you can make is to schedule a Professionals-Only meeting prior to the first team meeting with the clients. This is a time for professionals to meet each other if they have never worked together, and to discuss their concerns and expectations. Concerns include substantive matters i.e. the husband is adamant that he doesn’t want to pay alimony, and process matters i.e. the wife knows nothing of their finances and is completely intimidated by numbers. Professionals may also want to comment on their own processes. For instance, it helps to note the imbalances that result when some professionals have had many cases together while one professional is new to them all, or when one has a reputation that preceded them into the conference room. As with clients, professionals will find it is always best to label the elephants in the room rather than try to maneuver around them.
Leading the Clients into the Collaborative Room
As any successful gardener knows, the key to a bountiful crop lies in the preparation of the soil. First the large rocks must be removed. Then the earth must be turned, enriched, and levelled, before planting even begins. Likewise with the collaborative process: careful preparation enhances the chances of success. This begins with the lawyers, who talk with their clients about the use of the coach. Typically in the first attorney-client meeting, the lawyer will highlight the unique benefits of the multidisciplinary team, and explain how a coach can facilitate the divorce process. Attorneys present their rationales as clearly and firmly as possible, but clients may be concerned about the expense of additional professionals and the value they contribute. Some attorneys in our practice group refuse to work collaboratively without a coach, while others insist on coaches only in cases of clear mental illness or character disorder. Either way, the attorneys must maintain a delicate balance between the concerns of the clients and their own expert knowledge about how to control the process.
Then the coach meets individually with each party and in at least one 3-way meeting before the full team is assembled. These initial meetings with the coach help the divorcing spouse to articulate his/her experience of the marriage and its demise. Goals and concerns are identified, using questions like, what can you depend on your spouse for? What are your objectives for this divorce? What is it like for you to be in the room with your spouse? How do you communicate? How do you push each other’s buttons? The coach needs to understand each party’s personal experience and needs in order to guide them through the thicket of divorce.
The first 3-way meeting, which includes the coach and the spouses, is the last chance to look backward, before the momentum of the divorce moves the family forward. In some families, this may begin with one spouse asking why divorce is necessary. Often one spouse will seek reconciliation, using this meeting to address long-standing marital conflicts. While occasionally reconciliation does happen, more commonly this is a time for the initiator of the divorce to explicate his/her reasons for ending the marriage, hopefully using I-sentences to describes one’s own needs, rather than resorting to accusations and re-opening old arguments.
Three-way meetings with the coach are also the time to discuss the unmentionables in the marriage. Secrets which have driven the couple apart need to be acknowledged, lest they creep in during the financial and legal conversations later and hijack the team’s progress. Often this means acknowledging an affair, its’ impact on the deceived partner, and taking responsibility for the marital conditions which prompted the affair. More often the elephant in the room is not a secret, but the couple may not know how to have a civil discussion about such painful topics as gambling problems, cross-dressing, child-rearing differences, or the impact of major mental illness or alcohol abuse on the marriage. This is not psychotherapy, but a respectful conversation about why the marriage is ending. Having that conversation in the safety of the coach’s office reduces the possibility that marital issues and intense emotion will interfere with the spouse’s ability to work together later.
Initial coaching sessions prepare divorcing couples for how to talk with each other in collaboration. The coach teaches them to speak for themselves, without blaming, accusation, sarcasm, hostility or slander. While many of these dysfunctional communication patterns may have become normative over the decline of the marriage, the coach’s mission is to retool the couple’s communication, especially when there are children involved. Learning how to speak civilly to a former spouse during coaching sessions paves the way for the many difficult conversations of a divorce, and for decency in the co-parenting relationship for years to come.
The initial coaching appointments help the clients to trust their professional team. In order to successfully work together, the spouses must know that their voices are heard. Transparency is of the upmost concern here. Clients must understand that they cannot expect secrets to be kept from the other spouse, and that all significant information will be shared with the rest of the team.
From the Battlefield to the Mount: How Collaborative Professionals Produce Winning Teams
In a recent article, Christine Riordan, a nationally known expert on leadership development, used the movie Remember the Titans as a metaphor for team building. In the film, Coach Herman Boone takes his fractured and divided high school football team to the battleground of Gettysburg and implores his players to “take a lesson from the dead. If we don’t come together, right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were.” Coach Boone then establishes the primacy of an important team virtue: “I don’t care if you like each other right now, but you will respect each other.” (Riordan, 2013) Like Coach Boone, collaborative professionals need to seize the opportunity to build a culture of respect and gratitude on their teams, enabling the divorcing spouses to be winners in their collaborative effort. Here are some steps for professionals to follow to help bring the team to victory:
Use a Roadmap
For a team to operate effectively, all members need to know where they are going and how they are going to get there. A good roadmap establishes protocols and sequentially lays out the steps in the collaborative divorce process. It is a useful tool for easing the parties’ anxieties, giving structure to the process and helping to keep everyone accountable. We find the use of a collaborative divorce road map to be very helpful. Many clients begin their divorces saying that they want to be done as soon as possible; they already have plans in their minds about who should take which assets, what the parenting plan will look like, and who should live in the house. The road map articulates the necessary steps of signing on to the collaborative process, gathering information, identifying interests and concerns, evaluating options, and making decisions. The professional team addresses unreasonable expectations, and teaches clients that detours from the collaborative road map will cost them time and money.
Establish Ground Rules
In one recent case, the husband was a spread sheet aficionado, and the wife refused to engage in that arena since she perceived him to have an unfair advantage. So she attacked in the only way she knew how – emotionally. Specifically, she went after him for his annual golf outing with the boys, which, she maintained, cost thousands of dollars and contributed significantly to their current financial difficulties and ultimate divorce. Each financial 3-way degenerated into yelling and general chaos. To regain control of the process, the financial neutral prepared ground rules which were neatly printed on the whiteboard. They included:
No blaming for past sins, finger pointing or emotional outbursts.
Today’s discussion will be restricted to the meeting agenda [created by me].
Raising of voices beyond a certain decibel will be cause to terminate the meeting.
No mention of the “G” word. (“What’s the G word?” “Golf.”)
If asked, I will give my opinion, but only if agreed that said opinion shall not be considered to be an “official” recommendation.
Interestingly, as the meeting progressed, each party glanced occasionally at the ground rules to make sure that they were not in violation. If they thought that they might be in violation, they prefaced their remarks with a disclaimer. In short, the use of ground rules in this case made for a very productive meeting.
Ground rules can be highly effective in keeping the discussion focused and civil, particularly in cases where the arguments are circular and repetitive. In the above cited case, the financial neutral just did not want to hear the word “golf” one more time. “You made your point. We got it. In order for this discussion to move forward, we acknowledge your position and must now move on.”
Ground rules should be created by the professionals on the team as a form of crowd control. They should be prominently displayed and referenced whenever they are in jeopardy. We have found that ground rules are an excellent tool in the effort to maintain control and decorum in difficult situations.
Come to Meetings Prepared
As professionals, you are the team leaders. To lead a successful team, you need a game plan. Prior to each meeting, professionals should meet in person or have a telephone conference to discuss team strategy. This could mean deciding something as simple as how to configure or reconfigure the seating around the conference table, who should start the meeting, or anticipating potential roadblocks and strategizing about ways to avoid or resolve them. Be sure to determine and disseminate a conference agenda in advance of the meeting so that parties are not surprised by the agenda topics and thrown off balance. However, collaborative professionals should not be afraid to change the game plan when necessary. Debriefing after each meeting and reassessing strategy are instrumental to good leadership.
Do Your Homework
For a team to operate efficiently, all members need to satisfy their roles and obligations. Just as the parties will be expected to complete various “homework assignments” (e.g. completing financial affidavits, furnishing financial documentation, etc.) so, too, must professionals meet their team obligations. Thus, for example, if it was previously agreed that for the next meeting the attorneys would prepare child support guidelines or that the financial neutral would complete a cash flow analysis or that the coach would contact the children’s therapists to get an update on how the temporary parenting plan is working, such promises have to be fulfilled. If not, professionals send the incorrect message that poor performance will be tolerated.
Produce Written Summaries of Each Meeting
At a minimum, such summaries should set forth all agreements reached by the parties and/or the team regarding substantive and procedural issues. Alternatively, the summaries may include a detailed discussion of what was covered in the meeting. The summaries should be disseminated to all team members as soon after the meeting as possible. Summaries serve as a useful reference at subsequent meetings and a memorialization of the agreements helps establish the team’s progress and keeps the parties accountable.
Don’t be invested in the Outcome
Legal training emphasizes advocacy and positional bargaining. Not attaching to a particular position or result is one of the most difficult transitions for new collaborative attorneys to make. The success of a good collaborative divorce is measured not by how many touchdowns are scored by one side but by how the game was played and whether both parties are satisfied with the results. When professionals become positional and act like cheerleaders for one party, they wrongly signal that winning is more important than playing fair. This behavior can damage, or even derail, the collaborative process. All collaborative professionals need to keep an open mind, and allow their clients to find the compromises and agreements that will work for them.
Let the Clients Develop Their Own Agreement. If the professionals feel like they are working too hard, they probably are.
A good athletic coach leads his team to the finish line; he doesn’t make the plays himself. Professionals, especially attorneys, can easily fall into the trap of directing certain outcomes; after all, this is what attorneys have learned to do in litigated cases. The goal of collaborative divorce is to empower the parties to develop their own agreements. The collaborative team only suggests and provides appropriate options, solutions and compromises. The professionals should help involve the parties in developing options and crafting solutions. When the parties are so engaged, the end result often is more creative and acceptable as fair to both spouses.
Reach Across the Aisle When You Can.
When was the last time you can recall an attorney in a litigated case saying something complimentary to or even acknowledging the spouse of his client? For an attorney to do so would be highly unusual. In contrast, building a cordial relationship with all members of the collaborative team is encouraged. Making both parties feel as comfortable as possible is key to building trust and establishing open and honest communication. To help break the ice, professionals should start each meeting by engaging the spouses in talk about nonthreatening subjects; serve snacks and drinks at each meeting; and once the meeting begins, draw in parties who aren’t speaking. Although the attorneys are advocates for their own clients, they should each take care to empathize with the other party when appropriate; compliment the other party when he/she makes a valid point or good suggestion; and thank the other party when he/she shares useful information or makes important concessions.
However, we have learned from our own mistakes that too much camaraderie can be a bad thing. Clients who have significant debt do not enjoy listening to their attorneys chat about European vacations. Nor do they enjoy listening to their attorney bond with the other party over rock concerts they have both attended, when attendance at concerts has been a long-standing source of conflict in the marriage. There is no shortcut around sensitivity.
Start and Stop On Time.
Implicit in the success of team meetings is punctuality. Late starts make the clients anxious, and late endings worry anyone who has any other commitments. When scheduling each meeting, members should agree on the duration of the meeting, i.e., 2 hours, 90 minutes, etc. This helps to prevent misunderstandings, possibly resulting in a member having to leave the meeting before it is properly completed in order to make another appointment. If professionals plan to meet before the meeting, they should specify a start time and make sure that they end their conference before the clients arrive. If professionals are still conferring past the time when the full team is scheduled to begin its meeting, the clients may feel resentful and/or anxious.
Be Conscious that You are Role Models for the Parties and for Each Other.
In the collaborative process, professionals model behavior for the parties with every interaction that occurs. Do we show up to and start the meetings on time? Do we do what we say we are going to do while expecting clients to complete their own “homework assignments”? Do we interrupt other team members? Do we make eye contact? Do we “hear” them and each other? Are we respectful of one another? Do we show appreciation and gratitude? Professionals should use each collaborative session as an opportunity to demonstrate healthy communication, integrity in relationships and trust building — all attributes of an effective team. In the best of all worlds, parties will mimic these behaviors and apply them in their new co-parenting relationships (Lazar and Alba-Fisch, 2012).
One of the cornerstones of Collaborative Divorce is clear, civil and direct communication. The coach teaches spouses to communicate in 3-way meetings, and the entire team models effective communication in all of their routine interactions. Collaborative conferences are not the place for eye-rolling, heavy sighing or loud outbursts, so professionals must set the tone for respect and self-control.
All professionals on the collaborative team must remain vigilant of how they are communicating, be it verbally, nonverbally or in the written word. They avoid sarcasm, innuendo, teasing and accusation. If they are feeling impatient, angry or frustrated, they find a way to discuss this with the rest of the team rather than acting it out indirectly. When emotion does leak out, the coach or another team member tactfully brings this into focus lest it derail the progress of the entire team. For a further discussion of how to approach team members and discuss emotional undercurrents, we recommend reading “Difficult Conversations” by Stone, Patton and Heen.
Thoroughness and timeliness are critical in written communication. After every coaching meeting and team meeting, we send summaries of what transpired, what further information is needed and what agreements have been forged. Team members take pains to make sure that these are accurate, comprehensive and promptly completed. We often circulate drafts of the notes among the professionals first before forwarding them to clients, to insure balance and accuracy. And since homework assignments are included in these summaries, the clients need to receive them in a timely manner. The emotional intensity of divorce conferences can easily cloud one’s memory, so clients often forget what homework is required for the next meeting. The sooner they receive the summary of the past meeting, the sooner they will begin gathering the necessary information for the next meeting, and the greater the likelihood of progress for the team as a whole.
Lawyers, coaches, child specialists and financial specialists need to stay in regular contact with each other in between collaborative meetings. Generally this begins with the coach writing a summary of the clinical and interpersonal understanding gleaned from the initial coaching sessions, which is shared with the rest of the professional team. Alternatively, the team may begin with a brief teleconference in order to plan the collaboration. Often we use email to apprise each other of developments in collaborative cases, taking care to write “PROFESSIONALS ONLY” in the tag-line of our emails, and avoiding use of clients’ last names for reasons of confidentiality.
E-mail is a wonderful tool in collaboration, but it is no substitute for face-to-face conversations. As stated above, we generally recommend that the professional team meet 30 minutes before the first collaborative meeting, and 15 minutes before subsequent meetings. Importantly, we recommend explicitness in scheduling, so that clients are asked to arrive as the professional team meeting is ending. A common mistake is to set the same time for everyone, and ask the clients to wait while the professionals discuss their situation privately. Their anxiety level will soar before they enter the conference room, and the tone will be set for mistrust and anger.
Likewise, the team functions best when professionals save a few minutes after each meeting to debrief together. This may be a collective sigh of relief after surviving a tense or dramatic interaction, or an expression of concern about what happened during the meeting. Sometimes professionals just need to clarify information and plans; sometimes they need to have difficult conversations with each other. Do not underestimate the value of de-briefing as a team. Often lawyers schedule a brief meeting with their clients after 5-way meetings too, but we find it best to ask the client to wait a few minutes while the professional team wraps up its’ conversation. Coaches need to be thoughtful about how they schedule themselves as well. Since they come from a psychotherapy model of scheduling one appointment after another, they must learn to anticipate this necessary cushion after team meetings. Otherwise they will find themselves racing out of meetings before the work is done.
Strengthening Professional Relationships
Team professionals should seek opportunities to collaborate off the clock. Provided of course that no ethical, confidentiality or compliance considerations are being violated, social contact among the professionals outside the strict confines of the conference room can only enhance the collaborative process. And while some prefer breakfast meetings, others lunch and still others a drink after work, no matter the venue, we would encourage social contact among collaborative professionals. Any opportunity to learn more about your fellow practitioners, on a professional or personal level will only serve to strengthen relationships and ultimately, improve the process. We see these types of interactions as debriefing in a relaxed and informal atmosphere.
Likewise, professional meetings and workshops further serve as excellent vehicles for the exchange of ideas and the acquisition of additional tools and knowledge that will help the professional improve process skills. These types of meetings may feature a social hour to further encourage the free exchange of ideas and the opportunity to mix and mingle with like-minded professionals. We particularly recommend meetings like the annual IACP (International Association of Collaborative Professionals) conference, where practicing collaborators gather from around the globe to teach, to learn and to exchange ideas and experiences. Additionally, each individual profession has its own such meetings. We believe that IT is essential to periodically participate in professional meetings to stay on top of trends locally, regionally and around the country and world.
Practice group meetings on the local level are also particularly helpful in building positive professional relationships and addressing common concerns. From our experience, the establishment of an interdisciplinary practice group of collaborative professionals has enhanced our ability to function as coordinated teams. Dinner Meetings are held every other month in the private dining room of a local restaurant. We begin with a social hour, which members use to catch up on cases or just to chat. A business meeting is held during dinner followed by an educational component. We may discuss difficult cases, conduct role plays, or explore special topics related to our work.
Our practice group recently held a day-long retreat at a conference center by the water. It afforded us the opportunity to deepen our relationships and work in depth on norms for group practice. We highly recommend scheduling annual retreats as a means of strengthening team cohesiveness.
Do’s & Don’ts
Have your agenda set ahead of time. Organize your materials in advance, so you don’t waste time or appear disorganized as you rifle through your files.
DO use a road map and establish ground rules.
Don’t jump ahead; don’t generate solutions before you have considered the client’s needs and interests.
DO Show up 15 minutes early to talk with the team.
Professionals should arrive at meetings BEFORE their clients. This is invaluable time for the professionals to discuss the objectives of the meeting ahead. Nothing is as aggravating to clients as sitting in the waiting area while their professional team players come running in out of breath. Be seated, be calm, and be ready.
DON’T let the clients take over the meeting.
The clients control the outcome but the professionals control the process. Don’t let things get out of control. Keep a lid on emotions – spelled C-O-A-C–H. Be firm when required, and use your road map and ground rules as reminders, so that clients do not hijack the process.
DO watch your language.
Collaborative professionals avoid the divisive language of litigation. Words like “Marital Dissolution,” “the parties,” create a hostile and legalistic distance in divorcing families. When agendas and emails contain the “v” between the husband’s and wife’s names, collaboration will be overrun by negativity and alienation. We try to simply use our clients’ first names, and we refer to them as spouses rather than parties.
DON’T call in the coach to clean up after it is already too late.
Collaborative coaches are not miracle workers. When a case is already blowing up, it is probably too late for them to help you. By the time coaches are called in as saviors, the team may have already established bad habits, like violating ground rules or operating without ground rules, or operating without a roadmap. The professionals may have already exhibited poor behavior. Asking a coach to repair a broken process puts an unfair burden on one person while giving him or her only a minimal chance to succeed. The collaborative process functions best when all team members join the team at the same time and establish effective team behaviors from the beginning.
DON’T slip into advocacy or encourage your client to be positional.
Understand your role. Don’t bypass the team. This is especially difficult for attorneys who by training and experience have mastered the art of advocacy. While there is a place for advocacy in collaborative divorce, it is much more subtle than the “in your face” advocacy of litigated divorces. Rather than trying to be your client’s voice in collaborative meetings and asserting his or her positions at every turn, an attorney can be an advocate by asking the right questions of his or her client at the appropriate time in order to generate a particular response. In addition, the collaborative attorney confers with his or her client between meetings to suggest appropriate ways for the client to communicate his/her needs and interests.
DO regard the group as one team, not opposing sides.
This mindset is crucial for establishing a high performance team. To help create the “team” mindset, introduce the team concept in the initial meeting and remind the parties of it, if necessary, in later sessions.
DON’T be afraid of difficult conversations with your colleagues.
Do you sense that one of your colleagues is not adhering to the ground rules of collaborative divorce? Perhaps he/she is acting too much like an advocate? Is she monopolizing the meetings with her opinions? Is he inappropriately controlling the tone and flow of the meetings? Does he continually cut your client off when he/she is trying to speak? If you believe that your colleague’s behavior is impeding the team’s effectiveness, a healthy conversation to address your concerns is in order. Difficult conversations can be made easier if you:
Understand and acknowledge your own contribution to the problem.
Don’t personally attack or blame your colleague. Avoid statements that begin with “when you” and, instead, start statements off with “when I” or “when the client,”
Don’t gang up on anyone. Beginning statements with “we” makes it feel like the whole team is lined up against the individual.
Request a specific change in the behavior, rather than telling them what not to do.
Explain your feelings in terms of your worry, concern, or confusion, rather than anger.
Seek help from the team’s coach, when appropriate.
When these tips are followed, difficult conversations can be turned into learning conversations.
DO engage the coach to help ease communication between the attorneys.
As trained mental health professionals, coaches can be a wonderful resource for other team professionals to help resolve their communication problems. Coaches can lead the other professionals into a productive discussion when personalities begin to clash, or when lawyers are veering off the road map.
DON’T run off at the end of meetings.
Do allot at least 15 minutes at the end of each meeting to debrief. Managing your calendar is important. If you have allocated two hours for the session, the clients need to know the session will be over 15 minutes earlier for them. They will respect the fact that the professionals need a little time to de-brief and stay organized. This is an important time to regroup, discuss and plan for the next meeting.
DO utilize each professional to optimize results and create efficiencies wherever possible.
This is not a competition between professionals. Understand the capabilities of the professionals and use each to the clients’ best advantage. If efficiencies can be created by having the clients meet in a smaller session, do so. It can save the clients’ money and they will appreciate it.
DO learn to delegate and trust your collaborative colleagues! Another stolen expression is “the liberation of delegation.” One problem many of us have is relinquishing control. We feel that if we DON’T maintain control over the proceedings things will somehow spiral out of control. When colleagues learn to trust and rely on each other, it is amazing how smoothly things can actually proceed.
Lazar, KS and Alba-Fisch, M, Interdisciplinary Teams: Are they worth the bother? Seminar presented in Hartford, CT, 2012.
Riordan, C. ”Foster a Culture of Gratitude”. Harvard Business Review, HBR Blog Network, April 23, 2013.
Stone, D., Patton, B and Heen, S, Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most. Penguin Books, 1999.