Flexibility, and 3 Other Key Skills for Collaborative Success

You’ve probably heard about “conscious un-coupling,” and may well want an amicable parting of ways in your own divorce.  Many people choose an “alternative dispute resolution” (ADR) process such as divorce mediation or collaborative divorce for just this reason—they want to preserve good will and protect their children and their future as co-parents (if they have kids).  Mediation and collaborative divorce also can save hundreds of thousands in legal fees, help you avoid litigation, and protect you from having to disclose embarrassing details in an open courtroom.

These processes facilitate open dialogue between spouses, and help you explore creative solutions for a win-win situation—not the win-lose model of the adversarial process and divorce court.   Your mediator or collaborative lawyer should have training and experience helping couples stay on task, and making sure that strong emotions don't derail the process. 

But your own attitudes and actions also contribute to the success or failure of your collaborative, cooperative divorce.   You both need to be willing to attempt it—and you need to have, or develop, a few good skills.

Here are four key "good divorce skills" needed for a successful collaborative process:

1. Flexible thinking

It’s important to be willing to see issues and concerns from many perspectives—in life, and in a divorce.  Conflict persists, generally, when there is a lack of understanding of the other person’s perspective, and an unwillingness to expand your own views.  Flexible thinkers have an ability to see problems from various points of view.  They don't see issues as black or white, right or wrong.  Nor do they view conflict as a failure, but rather as a challenge that requires some creativity in order to find a solution. 

Becoming a flexible thinker means remaining open to possibilities, making an effort to collaborate well, and enjoying brainstorming.  You share ideas readily, and appreciate feedback.  In the collaborative divorce process, you may draw in others from diverse backgrounds, with varying expertise.  And as you pull all of these things together, you see magic happen.  Truly, if you’ve experienced the power of flexible thinking in a divorce process, you know what this means; it really can seem like “magic.”

2. Active Listening

Good communication is essential for divorce mediation or collaborative divorce to succeed.  This involves not just skillful articulation of your own needs and desires, but also listening respectfully to those of your almost-ex, without passing judgment or interrupting.  Active listening is a conversational volley, and a sharing of the air space.

To become an active listener, when your partner is speaking, do your best to stay present, in the here and now.  Give your attention to the discussion, and don’t allow your mind to start formulating assumptions or jump to conclusions.  Take the time to listen and gather more information.  Attempt to muster genuine interest.  Active listening can generate new insights, spark creativity, and lead to workable options and improved decision-making.

3. Genuine curiosity

While listening, challenge yourself to ask relevant questions about your spouse’s underlying interests, and work to clarify and understand any positions that seem off-base, confusing or wrong.  Conversely, if your partner is minimizing your concerns, ask why, and how you can help clarify your interests.  Both of you are bound to be passionate about particular issues.  Be curious and try to really understand how your spouse made an assumption or drew a conclusion that seems counter-productive or unfair.  The more you can learn about one another’s actual concerns going forward, the easier it will be to work together to come up with options and real solutions that genuinely work for both of you.

4. A focus on the future, not the past

Negative thoughts about what has happened may need to be processed with a therapist, but they can drag a divorce settlement conversation into a downward spiral of sinking into past pain.  When you focus on the past, you waste time and energy dwelling on hurt or disappointment or real problems that cannot be changed.  Instead, focus on the present and what you can do now.  You absolutely can change the terms of your interaction and your life now and in the future.

Turn your focus in a positive direction, imagining a future you could live with, one you would love.  View today’s conflicts as a temporary state and a stepping stone toward getting to where you want to be. Remember to look for solutions that include your spouse’s perspective, as well as the happiness and well-being of children you share. Imagine what it would look like to move forward amicably. By visualizing the future you want, you can work backwards to identify the changes you need to implement to achieve your goals and promote your family and your children’s best interest. 

Alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation and collaborative divorce are confidential processes that maximize the preservation of goodwill and your financial resources.  You set the pace for the meetings and the progress.  Ultimately, you are in charge of the outcome.

Many of the techniques applied in ADR are also used by marriage counselors in couples counseling.  If more couples would learn these four skills, and consider hiring a mediator when problems first arise, we’d see not only a rise in good divorces but also, likely, a surge in great marriages.

It’s never too late to learn to apply decision making techniques like flexible thinking in order to be respectful and solution-focused, for this divorce, an ongoing co-parenting relationship, or your next great romance.
Here is a link to a short podcast explaining ADR.


Regina A. DeMeo Esq. is a nationally recognized matrimonial attorney and legal commentator that promotes the use of mediation, ADR, and Integrative Law skills to achieve optimal results in negotiated settlements for families in conflict. For over 17 years she has helped families in the DC Area respectfully resolved their disputes using litigation tactics as a last resort. 




Mary Atwater is a licensed psychologist in Potomac, MD.  She works as a mediator in the Montgomery County court system and in private practice, and helps couples going through the collaborative divorce process create positive parenting plans.  She specializes in a form of psychotherapy called "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy," that uses mindfulness, flexibility, an acceptance of what is, and a commitment to changing behaviors to improve one's life.  To read more about her work, check out ADRPath.com.