Pitfalls for Mental Health Coaches in the Collaborative Divorce Process

The next few posts will explore some of the pitfalls or roadblocks that can come up for each of the three types of professionals in Collaborative Divorces in Tennessee – Mental Health Coaches, Attorneys, and Financial Neutrals.  This post will focus specifically on Coaches and their role in cases.

Other posts have discussed at length the unique value Mental Health Coaches bring to the Collaborative Divorce process and how important that role is in helping families move through the divorce in as healthy a way as possible.  But Coaches can also miss the mark in their role, both by doing more than is ideal in their role (over-functioning) or by not doing enough (under-functioning).  To avoid erring in either direction it is critically important for the Coach to fully understand how the Collaborative Divorce process works and the specific role the Coach plays in the process.

Over-functioning on the part of Coaches tends to happen when the Coach does not have good enough boundaries with one or both of the clients and ends up trying to work with either or both of the parties as a de facto psychotherapist.  Over-functioning Coaches tend to have a large number of individual meetings with the parties, going deeply into their respective emotional experiences and histories, sometimes even aligning too heavily with one of the parties as more of an emotional advocate than a neutral manager of the parties’ collective emotional divorce process.  When this shift occurs, the Coach has lost his or her neutrality in the case since psychotherapists, by definition, are not neutral with regard to their clients the way Coaches need to be.  Once neutrality is compromised, the other professionals as well as the parties end up losing confidence in the Coach being able or willing to effectively perform his or her role as manager of the emotional divorce and “keeper of the process.”  The lawyer whose client has been disenfranchised will also almost certainly not be able to effectively work with the Coach once the Coach is aligned with the other party, which will cause splitting among the professionals, adding stress to the process and running up fees for the clients.

Having said that, in my experience, when Coaches do not perform optimally it is much more frequently a result of under-functioning than over-functioning.  Under-functioning Coaches never fully own and embody their dual role on the team as the person who is actively tending to the emotional divorce while also serving as a vigilant keeper of the Collaborative process itself.

Under-functioning Coaches are typically overly deferential to the other professionals (particularly the attorneys) about what their role should be, and only do or do not do various functions in the case if they are specifically asked to do or not do something by another professional.  Otherwise, they are mostly silent.  For example, in team meetings, if the vibe of the room starts to move in a positional or adversarial direction, under-functioning Coaches do not intervene until there is a major altercation, rather than attending to the nuances in communication and body language that would have allowed them to redirect the team earlier and potentially avoid the altercation and its fallout in the first place.  They only meet or reach out to the clients between meetings if another professional asks them to do so, rather than relying on their own clinical skills to recognize that one or both parties may need to process a certain emotion that is coming up for the client around a particular topic being discussed by the team.  They tend not to have much feedback for the other professionals about the psychological dynamics happening in the case, simply noting that everything “seemed fine” to them.  Clients then end up feeling like they are spending hundreds of dollars per hour on someone who is not really adding value to the process for them.

Another way Coaches can under-function is by not fulfilling their role as neutral “keeper of the process.”  As has been discussed in previous posts, one of the ways the Coach helps minimize anxiety in cases in the background is through being certain that the parties can rely on the structure of the process in various concrete ways, which helps them feel more comfortable at a very stressful time.  For example, effective Coaches carefully track decisions that are made by the parties and action steps that need to be performed between team meetings to avoid confusion around what has been done and what has not.  They keep track of what needs to be on the agenda for the next team meeting and then send a draft agenda out ahead of the meeting that includes enough detail that the parties can relax more, knowing and preparing for what will be on the table for discussion at the next meeting, rather than being blindsided by a topic they were not prepared to discuss.  Finally, Coaches manage the process of scheduling meetings on the team’s calendars, which otherwise can feel overwhelming for the parties given what are often very busy schedules to juggle.  Effective Coaches are also watching to be sure the clients do not feel rushed or overwhelmed by the pace of the meetings, but are also trying to be sure that meetings happen at a rate such that momentum is not lost and the parties feel like the case is progressing efficiently.

Under-functioning Coaches either ignore or ineffectually perform one or more of these process-related roles.

The Coach’s role, in many ways, is the most complicated and nuanced of any of the professionals and the most different from traditional divorce litigation or negotiation.  It is easy for well-meaning Coaches to do too much, or more often, not do enough in terms of holding onto and working with the emotional divorce.  In addition to being sure they receive solid basic training in the team-based model of the Collaborative Divorce process as well as regular continuing education, it can helpful for Coaches to shadow a more experienced Coach for a case or two before taking their own cases as a way to experience for themselves the various roles the Coach needs to play in the case.

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