Thursday, March 24, 2016

Don't talk about it; deal with it.

There was a recent article in Scientific American about political leaders in South Florida who are concerned about the challenge of climate change on the economy and living conditions in the Miami area.   Faced with national politicians’ reluctance to address the causes of climate change, they learned to reframe the conversation to one about sea level rise – the effects of which residents can see on a regular basis when high tides flood neighborhood streets. By doing so, they turn the conversation away from debate about the causes of climate change and carbon caps and emission controls towards the undeniable reality of rising sea levels – a challenge everyone agrees must be addressed.   

I was reminded of this article during recent conversations with several parents who allege that their ex-spouses alienated their children.    As you might expect, their efforts to confront their ex’s with their perceived alienating behavior triggered arguments, denials, and additional rejection from the children. One father was doubly frustrated with a mediator who denied that parent alienation existed or that parents would ever deliberately alienate their children from the other parent.   In each instance, the buzz words, parent-child alienation, lead to protracted argument and mutual blaming rather than a thoughtful discussion about how to move forward. Just like arguments about climate change, such confrontations, in fact, tend to entrench parents and professionals in their pre-existing biases.

In the face of such resistance, it might help for parents and divorce professionals concerned that parent-alienation is occurring to follow the example of these south Florida politicians—focus on undeniable realities and mutual interests rather than debate cause and theory.  In other words, change the language to change the problem.


In the instance of the mediator who doubted the validity of parent-child alienation, for example, the rejected parent’s lawyer might focus on the children’s behavior (e.g., they’ve refused parenting time the past three months, their reasons for doing so are flimsy and unreasonable) rather than invoking the parent-child alienation concept. It is particularly important that parents and divorce professionals identify common interests rather than poking blame.  For example, there is substantial research supporting the finding that children are harmed when they lose a relationship to a parent.  Such children are at a higher risk for mood disorders and relationship problems as adults. Most parents can agree that they don’t want to increase the risk of their children growing up to lead unhappy adult lives. 

By presenting undeniable “facts on the ground” and identifying such mutual interests, divorce professionals and parents may be able to shift the conversation from “Who’s to blame?” to “What are we going to do about it?”  


Friday, March 4, 2016

Using a MESO to create a summer parenting-time plan

Divorced parents working to create a summer parenting-time schedule for teens should not confuse a MESO for miso. Miso is a delectableJapanese soup made with dashi and regional ingredients.  A MESO, in contrast, isn’t delectable--but it is an exceptionally effective negotiation tool.

MESO is an acronym for Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers a method used by high level negotiators to break impasses, tease out the other party’s interests, and maintain constructive engagement.  Here’s how it works:

One party presents two or more options of equal value to themselves:  “Here are three different ways we could handle your debt obligations.    I’m okay with any one of the three. Which one do you prefer?”  The other party then has the opportunity to choose which option he or she favors—and to explain why.  Since the party making the offer has already said any one of the choices is acceptable, this may settle the matter—they go forward with the option that the other party favors.  In other instances, the one receiving the offer is not ready to accept the option found most preferable (“well, this one is the best of a bad lot”), but their explanation for why that choice is preferable provides valuable insight about their interests and goals.  This information can be used, in turn, to create additional options.

A variation of the MESO is an effective strategy for divorced parents who want to involve their teens in summer planning but don’t want to over-empower the teens by letting them dictate the family’s schedule and parenting-time.  The process starts with the parents sharing their respective goals and ideas for the summer: vacations, travel, summer camp, athletic practices, band camp.  The teens’ ideas should certainly be part of the conversation (“Julie wants to take driver’s education this summer”), but at this stage the discussion and planning is driven by the parents.  With the information they’ve collected, the parents create two or more summer schedules; the only criteria is that each parent must agree that all of the proposed schedules are acceptable. Typically, each plan emphasizes different interests.  In one case, for example, the parents developed two schedules: one dividing the summer into two equal blocks of time, one with each parent, and the other dividing the summer into short blocks of parenting time, alternating throughout the summer.  In another instance, the parents created one schedule that included overnight camp enrollment and another schedule that allowed family travel. Once the parents have developed several mutually acceptable plans, they present the choices to the teen: “Your mother and I have agreed that we can work with any one of these three schedules, which one would you prefer?”   The teen then has the chance to indicate which plan is preferable. The parents can move forward with the teen’s preference or use it as the basis for further discussion.   

In families with more than one teenager, parents can either present a different set of options to each teen (tailored individually) or present one set of options and ask them to decide amongst themselves which one they prefer. 

This approach has several advantages. It reassures the teen that his or her parents can work together and use reasonable compromises to account for everyone’s concerns.  Although the teen weighs in with a final choice, decision-making authority remains with the parents – the teen is choosing amongst options created by the parents, not ones of their own making.  Furthermore, the process teaches the teens the necessity of making compromises and tradeoffs amongst everyone’s preferences to reach agreements:  “You can’t always get what you want.”  But by having a decisive say in what is finally chosen, he or she has real involvement in the decision.