Evenhandedness: Lessons from a Couples Counselor

Mediators strive to be fair and impartial.  Working with clients without bias, neither inclining toward nor moving away from them, is essential to the mediation process.  If we fail at this, we lose the trust and confidence of one or both clients and destroy the integrity of the mediation process.

And yet . . . since we are human beings, we mediators come fully equipped with biases, prejudices, opinions, tendencies, habits, likes and dislikes.  There is no getting around the fact that we will like some clients and dislike others.  

How do we deal with this?  How can I fully support my clients when one or both of them push my buttons? 

In this blog entry, I want to offer the teachings of collaborative marital therapist Dan Wile.  I believe his approach for maintaining and regaining evenhandedness when working with couples in marital counseling has much to offer divorce mediators.

Quick Recap of Wile’s Collaborative Couples Therapy

I have written about Dan’s work in the last two blogs.  

In Part 1, I summarized the basic theory and practices of Wile’s Collaborative Couples Therapy.  In Part 2, I wrote about whether the skills and techniques that he uses to help couples stay married can help mediators and lawyers who are helping couples dissolve their marriages.

Wile believes that a fight between partners is a fallback posture generated by an inability to confide in each other by giving authentic voice to one’s core or “leading edge” feelings.  

Unable to share feelings as allied partners who confide in each other, they turn each other into enemies through fighting or into strangers by withdrawing.

So Wile’s main goal is to help both partners express their core thoughts and feelings, thereby shifting their relationship from adversarial to collaborative.  

He might ask questions or make a neutral compassionate statement to induce the needed conversation, but he also uses a particular technique called “doubling” in which he actually speaks for each partner in turn.  His purpose is to restate (or translate) what the partner has just said or would like to say in a way that is more satisfying to the person he is speaking for and easier for the listener to hear.  The partners always retain their judgment as to whether he has accurately caught their core thoughts and feelings.

Because he becomes so deeply involved with helping each partner to express his or her core feelings, even to the extent of speaking for them, I was especially curious how Wile remains evenhanded, neutral and detached, during this effort.  How does he remain evenhanded when he feels aversion toward a client?

Don’t Expect to Remain Evenhanded

Surprisingly and refreshingly, Wile does not expect to remain evenhanded.  In fact, he fully expects that he, just like his clients, will continuously move in and out of an “adversarial” relationship with his clients.

He teaches that just as clients continuously move in and out of various mental and emotional states, so do therapists.  It cannot be avoided and should be expected.

Therapists try to remain empathic, collaborating with the clients, and appreciating how, as Wile puts it, each partner’s reactions make sense.  

But like their clients, therapists too are continuously drawn into other states.  They can become withdrawn and mentally drift off.  They can become anxious and feel pressure to help. They may feel overrun by the couples’ arguing or become self-critical and lose professional self-confidence.  They may even feel self-congratulatory.  

And they may become adversarial.  

Wile is in an adversarial stance with a client when he reacts to a client’s provocative behavior, or when he loses the ability to appreciate how a client’s reactions make sense, or when he negatively judges a client.  

All these therapist states can be considered a movement away from a desired professional stance of compassion and empathy.

Wile’s assumption that he will inevitably fall out of evenhandedness and into an adversarial relationship is his key to recovering his evenhandedness.  

By assuming that he will not be able to remain in a state of neutrality, Wile has adopted a self-forgiving attitude that relieves him of the self-induced and impossible pressure to do it perfectly. 

Also, by expecting to fall out of balance, he is able to see more clearly when he actually does so.  With no defensive armor to blind him from his own shifts, he is open to recognizing and accepting his movement into an adversarial stance.  This internal flexibility helps him regain a more empathetic and collaborative stance.

Two Stances: Compassionate vs. Adversarial

For Wile, a therapist is either in a compassionate therapeutic stance or not.  

Perhaps the most challenging adversarial stance a therapist must deal with is the stance of negative evaluation or judgment.  This can arise from reasons of a therapist’s theoretical orientation or from countertransference – feelings and reactions toward clients.  

Wile offers a comparison between features of a compassionate therapeutic stance and a negative evaluative therapeutic stance.

Compassionate Therapeutic Stance 

In a compassionate therapeutic stance the therapist imagines what it is like in the client’s shoes and tries to understand what the person is struggling with.  

From this vantage point, the clients’ symptomatic behavior is seen as a fallback measure that serves no purpose.  

For example in dealing with narcissistic behavior this therapist will understand the behavior the client is attempting to overcome, such as feelings of shame and worthlessness, and how manipulation and control and passive-aggressive actions are fallback manifestations for an in ability to express what one really needs to say.  

The compassionate therapist’s main task is to develop the unexpressed voices, and to create a platform for the partners to talk in a non-adversarial and satisfying way about their problems.  

Negative Therapeutic Stance

In contrast, a negative evaluative stance the therapist stands back in negative judgment and focuses on the person’s deficiencies.  

From this vantage point, the clients’ symptomatic behavior seems fundamental to the person’s nature or character.  

In this stance the therapist will see his or her clients as narcissistic, co-dependent, passive-aggressive, defensive, manipulative, controlling, refusing to grow up, and so on.  

Also, since client symptoms are viewed as serving a purpose, and the therapist views client resistance as a struggle, this therapeutic stance is adversarial.

Whenever Wile finds himself adopting negative evaluative stance in which he is reacting to or judging his clients, he tries to move back into a compassionate stance in order to listen and understand the problems with which they are struggling.

Detecting the Negative Shift

In an adversarial state of mind, Wile loses his ability to think and collaborate.

Clearly it is best to avoid an adversarial stance in the first place.  

Wile therefore tries to say things to avoid triggering a client’s reactions.  Remember, a fundamental principle for Wile is the harsh taskmaster that resides within us and disables our voice.  So Wile wants to avoid ways in which he might trigger a client’s internal critic.  In fact, he wants to create a platform from which to view the critic.  

But that is not always possible. While Wile emphasizes gaining skill in tracking the internal shift, it is easy to slip into an accusing or defensive stance without knowing it. 

Whenever his clients become defensive, Wile considers the possibility that he has been reproaching and aligned himself with the client’s internal taskmaster; or that he has become accusing or defensive (and therefore adversarial) without knowing it.

While he has grown skillful at avoiding interventions that are likely to provoke the clients’ defensiveness, he has learned to use his client’s defensiveness and accusations as a clue that he (Wile) has in fact become unwittingly defensive or accusing towards the client.  Wile considers the possibility that if a client feels defensive towards him, Wile has provoked that defensiveness.  In effect, Wile has aligned himself with the client’s harsh internal taskmaster.

Regaining Evenhandedness: Internal Reflections

To catch himself from falling into in an adversarial relationship with a client, Wile asks himself several questions as soon as he is able to reflect instead of react.  

These questions help realign himself with a compassionate therapeutic approach:

  • “What is it like to be in this person’s shoes?”  - This helps Wile become aware that he had temporarily slipped from an empathic state.
  • “What is this person’s inner struggle?” - This helps remind Wile there is an inner struggle beneath the symptoms.
  • “What must this person be feeling to act like this?” - What is the hidden fear or wish or feeling?  
  • “What is the hidden reasonableness in this person’s behavior?  What is the grain of truth in his/her outrage?”  - The reaction may be an exaggerated way of reacting to something that is actually happening.  
  • “What does this person need to have heard in order to be able to listen?”  - Is the client’s repertoire limited to attacking and defending because he/she is in a fight.
  • “Where is that in me?” - Wile reflects on how this person might be experiencing a universal human problem, of which Wile himself shares a minor version.

Regaining Evenhandedness: Actions

After learning with reflection that he must regain his balance, Wile does two things to shift from an adversarial to collaborative stance.

First, he has his say.  Second, he creates a platform to talk about his lack of evenhandedness. 

Having His Say

Speaking for the other partner, Wile might express his reaction to the speaker’s statements and say something like, “When you talk to me this way, I stop listening; you have no idea what that tone does to me.”

For the partner he’s reacting against, Wile helps him admit that he is not expressing himself in the best way because he has a lot of feelings about it; and then helps develop the core or leading-edge feeling that has not been articulated well.

Creating A Platform

Wile will also help create a platform to enable the clients and Wile to discuss (real or perceived) lack of evenhandedness.  He might say, “I’ve just spent quite a bit of time developing Husband’s point of view.  Wife, I’m wondering if you feel I have been siding with Husband and not interested in your point of view?”

Once Wile talks with a client about not looking at things from the client’s point of view, he is very much taking the client’s point of view.  The conversation about therapist bias or lack of even-handedness is occurring on a neutral, non-adversarial platform. The shift has occurred.   

Takeaways for Mediators

So do Wile’s teachings on working with evenhandedness for marital therapists apply to divorce mediators?

1. Neutrality Is Impossible

Mediators can appreciate the impossibility of remaining perfectly neutral at all times.  With a set of biases, prejudices and vulnerabilities, mediators should expect to be triggered by and react to some clients in some situations.  Like our clients, we pass in and out of a variety of moods.

2. Recognize Movement From A Compassionate Stance To An Adversarial Stance

Mediators must be alert to the movement away from a compassionate stance to an evaluative or adversarial stance. Unfortunately, Wile doesn’t give us too much help in how to cultivate internal awareness to help us recognize this shift. Mediators coming from a legal background could use some help here.  (This is a subject we will explore in great depth in my upcoming blog entries when I examine the work of Gary Friedman for mediators.) Wile does, however, help us appreciate that our client’s defensive reaction is a valuable external sign that we have shifted to an adversarial stance.  

3. Regain Compassionate Focus

Wile’s set of self-reflective questions provide valuable cognitive tools that could help mediators regain their empathic focus.  They help move us from a preoccupation with protecting ourselves in a defensive posture to regaining focus on the client’s core concerns.  

4. Give Voice From The Platform

Upon regaining a compassionate focus, the mediator would then move, like the therapist, back into dialogue by giving voice to the therapist’s thoughts and feelings, and the core concerns of the clients, from the meta-perspective of the “platform,” a “locale” that should be very familiar to mediators.  

5. Be Aware of Shifts Due To Legal Analysis

Wile’s emphasis on trying to remain in a compassionate stance raises a particularly interesting and challenging question for mediators.  Wile acknowledges that even many schools of therapy, which encompass some degree and techniques of confrontation, would not agree with Wile that a compassionate, empathic stance toward the client should be the desired goal at all times.  

This would then be especially problematic for mediators who (in one form or another) try to supply clients with a legal analysis or probable trial outcome to help clients adjust their expectations and weigh benefits and risks.  While this function may ultimately be helpful to clients in settling their case, that portion of the conversation could easily shift into an adversarial stance if the mediator were to adopt the  predicted legal outcome as his or her own and struggled against the client who disagreed.

6. Negative Labels Move Towards An Adversarial Stance

Wile’s notion that negative evaluations constitute a shift into an adversarial stance with one’s client is very important.  Mediators from legal backgrounds have been trained to make continuous judgments.  While we may not be putting diagnostic mental health labels on clients, we have all sorts of ways to label mediation clients.  We may even think this is analytically helpful.  But Wile teaches us that every negative label we impose moves us toward an adversarial stance against our clients.  From there, our clients are likely to get defensive.  

7. Evenhandedness Starts With Internal Work

Perhaps the most important lesson Wile offers mediators from legal backgrounds is the basic notion that evenhandedness starts with one’s internal work.  Lawyers and law-trained mediators are trained to focus on the externals.  There is really no training in working with one’s inner thoughts and feelings.  How silly that seems when we our goal is to come to recognize and work with our biases and prejudices and reactions to clients.  Where do these mental formations occur expect inside ourselves?

Final Thoughts

Wile teaches us that working on evenhandedness is not really about the other person. It is instead, work that the mediator must to do internally. It is only after recognition, reflection, and working to regain a compassionate focus that the mediator is able to rejoin the external conversation in a helpful and skillful way.

More From Dan Wile

As we have seen, Dan Wile’s teachings for therapists working with married couples has much to offer mediators working with divorcing couples.  I highly recommend his excellent books, listed below. Better yet, visit his website -- www.danwile.com -- and take a workshop.

After the Honeymoon: How Conflict Can Improve Your Relationship.  Revised edition.  Oakland: Collaborative Couple Therapy Books (2008)

After the Fight: Using Disagreements to Build a Stronger Relationship.  New York: Guildford Press (1993).

Couples Therapy:  A Nontraditional Approach.  New York: Wiley (1981).