The Role of Mediation Coaching in Family Dispute Resolution

By Brook Thorndycraft, M.A., B.Ed., Acc.F.M., Q.Med.

Article originally published in AFCC-Ontario newsletter

Conflict coaching, or conflict management coaching, is an innovative practice which has many benefits to offer the field of family dispute resolution. While more commonly used in workplace and organizational conflict in Ontario, coaching is growing as a practice in the context of family conflict, divorce, and co-parenting issues.

What is conflict coaching?

The purpose of conflict coaching is to help individuals reach their personally identified goals related to conflict resolution and interpersonal stress. At any stage of a dispute, a coach can provide one-on-one support to help a client consider options, resolve the issue, prevent new conflicts from arising, and successfully manage ongoing relationship stress.

Coaches encourage people to reflect on their own behavior, test the reality of their assumptions, and find different ways to deal with difficult relationships. 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 developing better relationships. The coaching process may assist people to develop emotion regulation skills, as well as a capacity for self-reflection, conflict analysis, personal strategic planning, and clarification of one’s values, feelings, and needs. Coaches may encourage brainstorming and active listening as components of constructive communication.

Although coaching can have a therapeutic impact, it tends to be more practical and action-oriented than therapy, and focuses on the present and the future. Coaching shares many similarities with brief solution-focused therapy models. It can also complement 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.

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 more collaborative and child-centered parenting methods; and

●      divorce coaching, which offers people a supportive hand to navigate the legal, bureaucratic, and emotional morass of divorce.

What is mediation coaching?

Mediation coaching has been a part of alternative dispute resolution for many years. According to Cinnie Noble, a pioneer of conflict management coaching and a strong proponent of pre-mediation coaching, coaches have been helping clients better manage their conflict in all contexts, including family conflict, since the early 1990s. While mediation coaching is used more in workplace conflict in Ontario, it is beginning to become more known in family dispute resolution as well. For a detailed description of mediation coaching in a workplace context, see Cinnie Noble’s article on Mediation Coaching, originally published at www.mediate.com.

Mediation coaching (which can include pre-mediation and post-mediation coaching) supports parties to negotiate well for themselves, develop their capacity to deal with uncomfortable feelings, and build skills necessary to give and receive difficult feedback.

In pre-mediation coaching, people are supported to explore options, identify potential obstacles, deepen their understanding of the other party’s concerns, and develop constructive communication skills. The coach may help people identify potential triggers ahead of time, and practise emotion regulation strategies that may help them in the moment. Pre-mediation can also be an opportunity to identify big picture goals and values, so that people are less likely to get stuck in the minutia and more able to let go of smaller issues. There may be one or multiple pre-mediation coaching sessions, and it can continue throughout a mediation process with multiple sessions. While most pre-mediation coaching happens outside of the mediation process between a coach and one party who wants to feel more prepared, it is also possible for a mediator to integrate a pre-mediation coaching session with each party on consent, as part of the mediation process.

Many separating parties struggle to put a mediated agreement into practice, as negative emotions and unexpected changes can complicate the most detailed plans. A post-mediation coach supports people to manage their expectations and frustration, let go of small slights or annoyances, explore how they might shift conflict patterns, and problem solve around unforeseen outcomes. While the parenting coordination process may be more effective in high conflict situations given the arbitration function when necessary, coaching can be a good option when only one party is willing, or when parenting coordination is cost-prohibitive for the parents. A coach can offer much needed support for the party who seeks an easier co -parenting relationship.

How is pre-mediation coaching used in high conflict situations?

In the New Ways for Families® program, pre-mediation coaching is one of five methods used to prepare families experiencing high conflict for mediation. In Pre-Mediation Coaching: 4 Skills for Your Mediation Clients, (2012) Bill Eddy describes how pre-mediation coaching can help clients learn four key skills for successful negotiation: managed emotions, flexible thinking, moderate behaviour, and checking oneself in the moment.

While preparing this article, I communicated with Bill Eddy and he noted: “I have used pre-mediation coaching with several parties before starting the separation/divorce mediation sessions. I believe it has primed the parties to be more prepared for managing themselves and making decisions during the mediation sessions, often resulting in the need for fewer sessions. It also seems to have helped me save some mediations in which the parties might otherwise have dropped out, mostly because I had the early connection with each of them.”

Mediation coaching can offer tangible, goal-oriented support for people going through a separation and divorce, as they develop their negotiation skills, and build their capacity to effectively manage difficult relationships. Mediation coaching has much to offer families in transition.

Brook Thorndycraft, M.A., B.Ed., Acc.FM, Q.Med. is an Accredited Family Mediator and Conflict Coach, practising in Toronto, Ontario. Visit her website at www.brookthorndycraft.com, or reach her by e-mail at: info@brookthorndycraft.com.