Defensiveness and Looping: Found Opportunities, by Katherine Eisold Miller

I was struck by a moment that happened in a fishbowl exercise in a recent Collaborative training. The role-play was of a first joint meeting in which the parties were discussing the process and deciding whether to commit to it.  It involved a couple in which the wife had learned after a long marriage that her husband was a serial adulterer and had been since the early years of their marriage. She was very distressed and mistrusting of her husband.

The wife, when asked whether she had any concerns about the Collaborative process, said that she did not know if she would be able to trust the husband’s attorney since she had so little trust for her husband.  The way the woman playing the wife phrased this was to say directly to the husband’s attorney, “I don’t trust my husband and because you are his attorney I’m not sure that I’ll be able to trust you in this process.”  In response to that very direct statement, the team became defensive. One person took the opportunity to defend the Collaborative process. Another wanted to reassure the wife that the husband’s attorney could be trusted but did not know how to do that. The training participants turned to me for help.

I suggested to the team that although it might feel uncomfortable, this was not necessarily a difficult moment in the process. Instead, I invited them to see it as an opportunity.  An opportunity to discuss with the wife what trust meant to her, whether and why she would want to trust both attorneys and the rest of the team and what it would mean for her if she were able to do so.

With guidance, the role play participants inquired of the wife about trust and then reflected back to her their understanding of her response.  The result was a significant shift in the dynamic of the team and their work with the parties.  Both parties were able to talk about what trust meant to them, what the breach of that trust had meant to them and what kind of trust would need to be established in order for them to move forward.  The team was able to hear what they would need to do to establish trust with the parties and what it would mean if they did not.  It was a moving experience.