Collaborative Practice and BIFF Responses

CPCAL_April2013Last weekend, I participated in the annual CP-Cal conference: Collaborative Practice – California. There were about 160 attendees, with numerous workshops and a few plenary sessions. It’s amazing to see how Collaborative has grown in California in just 8 years! It was fun to see friends and to hang out with two of my favorite colleagues from San Diego, Shawn Weber (who is now on the Board of CP-Cal) and Julie Mack, both lawyers who have been involved in court cases and mediation cases of mine. Several of the sessions talked about the brain and how litigation tends to bring out the worst in us, and how staying calm, speaking slower and having a friendly smile on your face can entice the brains of others to become more flexible and collaborative in their thinking.

Friday evening, the speaker, Doug Noll, pointed out research which shows that lawyers who turn down final offers in civil mediation (mostly about money settlements) did worse in their court outcomes in about 50% of cases. This is dramatic evidence that people should try twice as hard to settle their cases, and that many clients – and/or their lawyers – are over-confident half the time about their likelihood of success by having their “day in court.” (I have always thought of Family Court as the emergency room for legal disputes – and I’ve never heard anyone say: “I want my day in the Emergency Room.”)

Of course, Collaborative Practice (they no longer call it Collaborative Divorce, because it is being applied in other settings now) tends to be comparable to average litigation cost-wise in many cases, because of the whole team of 2 attorneys, 1 or 2 mental health coaches, a child specialist and a financial specialist. Yet the level of satisfaction by clients is much higher than in litigation, where one generally loses, if not both!

And the children are far better off when decisions are made by parents thoroughly working on their parenting plans by agreement, than to have a judge make their family decisions. When I became a lawyer 20 years ago, I remember a researcher telling family lawyers that if parents reached their own agreements for parenting plans – even with professional help – they followed them over 80% of the time, and if the judge made their parenting decisions, they followed the judge’s plan a little over 40% of the time.

Of course, the Collaborative team approach helped inspire our New Ways for Families method, which teaches skills using 3 counselors with a Parent Workbook for six sessions, which is then reinforced by lawyers and/or mediators in decision-making. As I reported in my previous blog, this approach is having a lot of success in Alberta, Canada, in two family court jurisdictions.

New Ways is an especially effective method for managing high conflict cases, whether there is one high conflict parent (often with a personality problem such as borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, or antisocial, paranoid, or histrionic personality disorders) or both parents. This “collaborative” skills-building method helps bring out the best in parents, which really helps protect their children from unnecessary conflict and litigation.

One of the key skills in New Ways is BIFF Responses. I gave a 90 minute session training Collaborative professionals (lawyers, mental health professionals and financial professionals) for coaching clients with this method. As some said, it’s harder than it looks – but gets easier with practice. We have been teaching this method through our seminars for High Conflict Institute for over six years, and the feedback from parents, legal professionals, workplace professionals and employees is that this is a really helpful technique for written responses to hostile communications, such as emails, Facebook  postings, etc.

I am hopeful that Collaborative Practitioners will start having their coaches and child specialists teach the New Ways for Families’ skills at the beginning of their collaborative cases. We have adapted a “Collaborative Parent Workbook” for this purpose and look forward to providing our 1-2 days trainings to collaborative practice groups that are interested in such a skills-building approach for their clients. I believe it will help clients be more efficient, more effective, more satisfied – and more likely to keep working together in collaborative and other methods, such as mediation, rather than going to court.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and President of the High Conflict Institute, which provides training in managing high conflict legal, workplace, healthcare and educational disputes. He is the author of the New Ways for Families method, including the Collaborative Parent Workbook. He is also the author of BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, which contains examples of constructive and calming responses to hostile communications in the workplace, families, with neighbors, in government and other settings. For articles, seminars, books and methods, see www.HighConflictInstitute.com.