The end of a long term relationship is one of the most destabilizing experiences people go through. It’s disorienting and exhausting. The emotional rollercoaster alone is enough to make things confusing, but on top of that, there are all of the life changes a break up brings with it. And the unfairness of it all is that at this very time of chaos and confusion, major decisions need to get made. Where are the kids going to live? Who keeps the house or apartment and who has to move? How do we make sure the kids are as OK with the transition as they can be? These are big decisions. As a family mediator, I often see people come into my office who desperately want to make an agreement and move on, but who aren’t really prepared to mediate effectively. Some people are so stuck in the emotional impact of what’s happening that they can’t negotiate from a thoughtful forward-thinking state of mind. Others feel scattered and overwhelmed and haven’t really thought through the options available to them. Frequently, people feel overwhelmed by the idea of even being in the room with their ex, let alone having to make decisions with them.
In these situations, I often recommend a few sessions of coaching to help people feel more prepared to make good decisions.
What is conflict coaching?
A conflict coach supports someone to reach their personal goals of resolving conflict or improving important relationships in their life. A coach offers one-on-one support at any stage of a disagreement to help people get along, think about different possibilities, prevent new conflicts from arising, and deal with ongoing relationship stress.
Conflict coaching is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of practices. While this article focuses on mediation coaching, which is one form of conflict coaching, there are other kinds of specific conflict coaching that can be helpful in times of separation and divorce including:
Co-parenting coaching, which helps parents, either together or one-on-one, to develop better collaborative and child-centred parenting methods; and
Divorce coaching, which offers people a supportive hand to navigate the legal, bureaucratic, and emotional morass of divorce.
Coaching can help people build their capacity to deal with difficult emotions, reflect on their situation and explore options, plan for different possibilities, clarify what they and the other person are feeling and needing, practice effective communication, and feel ready to talk about difficult things. The coach acts as a supportive but gently challenging listener, and works with people to shift attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that may be getting in the way of improving their relationships.
Many people wonder how conflict coaching is different from therapy. While coaching can have a therapeutic impact, it tends to be more tangible, action-oriented, and focused on the present and the future. While some people might need the deeper work of therapy, coaching can be a great tool for people who are feeling stuck, and need some support to see their way through. Coaching can also work alongside a therapeutic process, by addressing a client’s immediate conflict resolution needs, leaving the therapist free to focus on the underlying grief and loss associated with relationship change.
What is pre-mediation coaching?
A lot of my coaching clients come to me because they have an upcoming mediation, and they are worried that things won’t go well. Coaching can be a great tool to help people go into a mediation feeling more confident and prepared. In pre-mediation coaching, we might explore possible solutions, problem solve around things that might get in the way of an agreement, think about what the other person might need to give them what they need, and practice speaking and listening in constructive ways. The coach may also help people identify particular triggers or hot issues ahead of time, and practice skills that may help them stay calm in the moment. It can also be an opportunity to identify big picture goals and values, so that people are less likely to get stuck in the details, and able to let go of smaller issues. Coaching before mediation can be one or multiple sessions, and can continue through the mediation if there are multiple mediation sessions. While most coaching happens separately from the mediation process, it is also possible for a mediator to integrate coaching sessions into the mediation process, as a way to make the mediation more effective. This can happen in two ways:
The mediator can offer separate coaching sessions to each parent to help them prepare. This can be helpful when people have specific personal concerns about their readiness to mediate.
The mediator can do a group coaching session with both parents present. The purpose of a joint session is to set groundrules and create a climate that will facilitate better agreements.
How does coaching help after an agreement is reached?
For many families, once an agreement is reached, it can be very hard to put it into practice. Difficult emotions and unexpected changes can complicate the most detailed plans. After mediation, a coach supports people on a one-on-one basis to manage their expectations and frustration, let go of small slights or annoyances, explore how they might be able to shift a conflict pattern, and problem solve around issues that come up. While a parenting coordinator may be more effective in co-parenting situations with a lot of conflict, coaching can be a good option when one of the parents is not willing, or when retaining a parenting coordinator would be too expensive. A coach can offer much needed support for the person who wishes for an easier co-parenting relationship.
How do you decide if coaching is for you?
Divorce can be expensive, and it can feel like there is always another expert to consult or professional to hire. Why would anyone want to add another person into the mix? As I mentioned, coaching is not for everyone, and it’s important to think carefully about what kinds of support will be most helpful in your situation. That being said, here are a few situations in which coaching might be worth it:
You want to clarify what is most important to you in the long term, so that you don’t get stuck fighting about details;
You’re feeling lost in all of the decisions that need to be made, and want support to explore the different options before you agree to anything;
Your ex tends to do or say something that pushes all of your buttons, and you want to develop your capacity to respond differently;
You want to feel more comfortable asserting what’s important to you;
You know when you’re frustrated, your ability to listen goes out the window;
You’re nervous about mediation and want to practice negotiating, listening, and stating your concerns before you have to do it for real;
You to talk to someone who will listen and reflect what they are hearing, without judging or offering unhelpful advice about what you should do.
And then there are situations where coaching is not the best option. If you need advice about your legal rights and responsibilities, then it’s definitely a family lawyer that you want to speak with. If the grief of separation is so intense that you are feeling depressed, hopeless, or unable to keep going, then it would be better to speak with a therapist.
So in the end, mediation coaching is one of the many options out there for people who are going through a breakup. It can offer tangible, goal-oriented support for people to develop their negotiation skills, and build their capacity to effectively manage difficult relationships. If you’re going through a breakup and you’re feeling stuck or just struggling with the transition, reach out and see if coaching might be right for you.