When will we start telling the truth about negotiation? For many years, much negotiation training has been focused on seeking win-win results. This concept was popularized by Fisher and Ury’s extremely influential Getting to Yes.
The search for a win-win outcome differentiates “Getting to Yes” principled negotiation from distributive negotiation which is usually a zero-sum game i.e. if I win, you will lose. In a principled negotiation, the parties will seek to understand each other’s interests and expand the pie i.e. invent new options for mutual gain.
I recently attended a talk by Professor Michelle LeBarron from the University of British Columbia. She suggested that we need to stop telling parties that they can achieve win-win outcomes. The reason? Even if the parties manage to negotiate a resolution, it is usually more a case of “mostly ok – mostly ok”.
In most negotiations, no party will get 100% of what they want – if they do get 100% the process is probably not a negotiation. Most parties in mediation (which is a facilitated negotiation) will end up achieving some of their own goals and allowing the other party to meet some of their goals. This is why the ‘mostly ok’ description makes sense to me from what I have seen in practice.
But is it true for the parties? We know from developments in neuroscience that we are programmed to experience losses more intensely than gains. It is not uncommon for both parties in mediation to feel taht they have made all the concessions, whilst ignoring any gains.
I think that for many parties the most significant gains are those that will only reveal themselves as they live the agreement. At the point of finalizing the deal, parties are often unable to appreciate the benefits that will accrue over time:
One party said to me some months after he had signed his mediation agreement, that he had not realized “the amount of space in [his] mind that was being used up” by his dispute. That space had become free for his family, his health and his business.
Imagining the future can seem like an impossible task. The hurts and pain of the past and present can make thinking about how things might look in one year, five years or ten years can be a struggle. At a time when parents are working through their separation, their children are not only managing their own response to this family transition, but are still growing and developing. The work of parenting and child development does not pause whilst parents recover their own equilibrium.
In these challenging circumstances, it can help parents to use a parallel parenting structure to manage their ongoing responsibilities to their children. Although agreeing rules is not the same as complying with rules, having an agreed structure in place is a significant benefit. Without structure, it can be impossible for people to imagine how they might move on. The old patterns of their relationship did not work but how can they construct a new pattern?
One of the issues for most separating parents is that for now they are surrounded by uncertainty:
In the midst of the separation process, children still need to be fed, watered and get to school. Parallel parenting can provide a strong basis for parents to manage their parental responsibilities. If parents are able to agree a new paradigm and meet their obligations, parents may even be able to rebuild trust, communication skills and the ability to problem solve. Choosing to try and build a new structure is the first step to moving on. The reality is that the children will continue to need help with homework, will get into scrapes, will have medical issues, etc. etc. Having a structure in place as to how to deal with the realities of parenting can help both parents to parent without having to re-litigate the past.
There are multiple variations in the way that parents can design how their co-parental team will operate. Separating parents need to be supported to develop rules which will work for their children and their new separated family.
One of the key principles of parallel parenting is that instead of having unspoken rules, the co-parents put in place explicit and clear rules to manage their relationship. For whatever reason, the old patterns of behaviour did not work for the family and helping co-parents create new patterns of behaviour is a critical part of setting up effective parallel parenting.
Rules may include:
The list goes on. Each family needs to consider their circumstances and what rules are needed for them. For some families, the flashpoint for conflict is communication (e.g. texts), for other families the flashpoint will be attendance at school events. A family mediator will work with the parents to tailor rules which work for their family circumstances.
It can seem very strange and awkward to put in place ground rules when people have been in relationship for a long time, however, moving forward requires parents to change to new patterns for interacting which can form the basis for parallel co-parenting. Research would indicate that a third of separated parents can work co-operatively and that a third remain conflicted. For the other third of parents, parallel can provide a space for mutual respect and appropriate behavior.
Respect is a key principle for parallel parenting. Whilst parents may have different approaches or different rules, a key component of parallel parenting is that one parent does not undermine the other parent. For example, if Parent A believes bed-time winding down begins with a story and Parent B believes that it should start with a bath, neither parent should criticize the other.
Each parent is responsible for doing the best they can with the children when they are in their care. It is not unusual for parents to agree some common rules for younger children (e.g. bedtime) and for older children (e.g. electronic usage). This can assist each parent to present to the children as a co-parental team. However, there will also be differences between each parent’s home rules. This is the essence of the work by Isolina Ricci (Mom’s House Dad’s House).
Next post, putting it all together and using parallel parenting as means of moving forward.
Why do many separated parents use parallel parenting? Because at a time when the adult relationship is ending, parallel parenting can provide a foundation for the co-parental team to continue functioning for the benefit of the children. Because parallel parenting provides a space for parents to acknowledge the difficulties and challenges inherent in their transition through separation and yet to be available to co-parent without open warfare.
What are the basic principles that can guide co-parents to set up parallel co-parenting?
How do parents disengage from the battle?
In Hong Kong, family mediators try and help parents to focus on their children when making decisions about their children’s arrangements. By sharing research about how to enhance protective factors for children in separating families, family mediators can help to redirect the parents away from focusing on their adult relationship and towards their co-parental responsibilities.
Another casualty of separation is often whatever ability there was to problem solve or communicate. Separating parents may find it difficult to communicate and to problem solve together. However, constructive separation requires both good problem solving and clear communication.
In addition, whatever trust may have bound a couple together is usually gone. Understanding that a lack of trust and respect is often a part of this process can help parents to refocus on how to make things work for their children as opposed to winning a battle.
The patterns of behaviour which have led to the separation need to be replaced, but consciously deciding to disengage from conflict is the first step. Next post what new patterns can help separating parents to form a new co-parental team?
Parallel? Co-operative? Conflicted? You and your partner may have made a conscious or an unconscious choice about your parenting style when your children arrived. Divorce and separation, however, requires parents to make a conscious choice.
In family mediation, parents have the opportunity to determine the type of co-parenting style they will use to raise their children in their newly separated family. Will it be difficult for the children to move between your houses? Will you make it so that your children can smoothly transition between each house? Will your children look back and remember their childhood as a time when things were tough but they knew that you were both a co-parenting team? or will your children feel that every transition was fraught with tension?
For some parents they have always been co-operative and as they separate they are able to work hard to focus their co-parenting on their children and not on their adult relationship. For other parents the fallout from the hurt and pain of their separation impacts every aspect of their co-parenting. It can seem that these are the only two options - co-operative or conflicted co-parenting.
In family mediation it may be helpful for parents to consider a third option - parallel or disengaged parenting. Dr Isolina Ricci's book, Mom's House Dad's House, has given numerous families a practical pathway to parallel parenting. When parents decide that open co-operation is too difficult to achieve and open warfare is too harmful to their children, there is a third option. Parallel parenting allows for parents to continue to co-parent with structures e.g. communication rules, and a responsibility not to undermine the other parent.
In the coming weeks, I will focus on how parallel parenting can help families transition through separation and divorce.
The zinger leaves our lips and zooms towards the recipient. As the words leave our mouth there may be an instantaneous moment of regret, or it may be that later that day you take a moment to wince at what you said. For most people this is a recognisable experience, the feeling that you have said something in the heat of the moment which was ill-advised or hurtful or destructive. When we are frustrated and angry is reacting without thought inevitable?
Conflict coaching aims to provide skills for people in how to respond in conflict situations rather than react. Riskin and Wohl have identified Six Obstacles that we encounter when we are in conflict.
If these are the obstacles what do Riskin and Wohl recommend? They advocate for the use of mindfulness training to provide space and time for reflective responses. In essence they suggest making use of mindfulness techniques to take a step back from the situation, assess what is happening and your response and then refocus attention.
By assessing our bodily sensations (e.g. increased heart rate, faster and shallower breathing), our emotional response (e.g. anger, frustration, disappointment) and our thoughts (e.g. what are you noticing? Where is your attention?) we can determine, what is happening for us in conflict situations. Just the act of slowing down from delivering a reaction to give time to assess and consider how we are feeling can make a significant difference to how we respond. Next time you encounter conflict, take a moment to assess and consider how you may frame a response rather than reacting.
Whether, people are in family mediation or employment mediation or commercial mediation, they have probably seen trust erode. All the reassuring words in the world cannot rebuild trust. Maybe you don't need to. Maybe the relationship is over and you are able to walk away from that particular burning bridge.
However, if you have an ongoing relationship (co-parenting / employment / commercial arrangements, etc.) then you will need to address the loss or deterioration of trust. If we accept that words are not enough to rebuild that bridge - how do you even start?
Rebuilding trust is a process and it may take months or years. The first steps to rebuilding trust can be taken in the mediation itself. A key way for people to address the loss of trust in mediation is through transparency. Disclosure of information relevant to the mediation can create the conditions in which trust can start to be rebuilt. This can start to challenge the narrative that the untrustworthy other side is hiding something. Transparency is a beginning but it can be a powerful first step.
I'm delighted to be speaking at the AISC Conference in December. The Conference represents a chance for more than 500 school leaders to come together and focus on three areas this year - early years pedagogy / transforming learning and health and wellbeing. I will be speaking about the ways in which the negative impact of separation on children can be minimised.
For many children, the support network which exists in their school is critical to their continued wellbeing. Looking forward to learning from the AISC professionals at the Conference.