The Tyranny of the Flipchart

Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation

“Maybe it would help make things clearer if we list all of your assets on this big sheet of paper. We can list each item that either of you thinks should be discussed; then we can go through and list approximate values of each item; then we can talk about how you’d like to distribute each item; we can also tally up the values, so you’re each receiving about equal value, assuming that’s what you’re aiming for.”
This suggestion I would make to divorce clients was so rational. How could you argue with it, really?

But how far was I from the heart of my clients’ conflict? Pretty far, usually, I think. Often one client was more comfortable with what I was doing than the other was; but neither was being helped to get to a better place with their conflict.

Take Melissa and Jim. Melissa, who decided to end the marriage, felt that Jim’s emotionality was preventing them from finishing the divorce efficiently. Jim felt that it was unfair that Melissa was insisting on divorce; and it was extremely unfair that she wanted half the assets, since he had earned more and he had always objected to how much she spent. The assets that remained were due to his earning and his frugality, he said. If not for Melissa’s habits, there would be a lot more. And Melissa felt that she had made great sacrifices for Jim and the marriage, and that her contributions could not be measured in dollars, so that now the simple fair thing to do was to divide things equally.

So Melissa liked what I was doing with the flipchart. It was taking them down the path she preferred, of dividing the assets equally and of moving them toward a final settlement. On the other hand, Jim felt that the entire situation was unfair, so this process of listing assets was incredibly frustrating for him. Sometimes, he seemed to contradict himself with his objections. At one moment it was, ”We don’t have to get this nit-picky – anything under $100 we can just ignore.” The next moment it was, ”Hey, what about those dishes you took from the house? Why aren’t we counting those?” His reactions didn’t seem constructive – they seemed designed to undermine the process, itself. Meanwhile, I felt like my way of contributing was to continue to drag them through the list of assets.

Since I’ve embraced the transformative approach, I believe I’ve become far more helpful. In the case of Melissa and Jim, I would no longer act as an advocate for the flipchart. Instead I would remain present with the couple in the heart of their conflict. I might summarize what I’d heard from Melissa and Jim: “So you’ve talked about a few aspects of the situation, would it be ok if I summarize what I’ve heard you say?” Then, assuming they both express that it’s ok, “As far as getting divorced goes, Melissa, you said that the time has come – you weren’t sure for a while – but for the last 3 months you’ve become certain that divorce is the best thing to do. Jim, you’ve said that you feel that Melissa is calling it quits too early – that you would ideally still like to work on the marriage. You also said that you believe that Melissa is clear about it, and therefore, you’re willing to go ahead and do it; but if Melissa were to change her mind, you’d still be up for working hard in counseling. You two also talked about what to do with your assets. You’ve both agreed that you, Jim, should keep the house, because you’re so attached to it. When it comes to the rest of the assets, Melissa, you said you assume that they should be divided equally, since you both contributed in different ways to the marriage and since you’ve also heard that legally, that’s generally how it’s done – and Jim, you said that given that you earned more, and that Melissa spent more over your objections, and also that Melissa is the one who is insisting on the divorce, you don’t feel like you should have to share the assets equally with her. So. . . would you two like to focus on one of those topics. . . or is there something else you’d like to talk about at this point?”

Since switching to the transformative model, my mediations have gone much quicker, and usually without me stepping up to a flipchart. The most common pattern is that, within a couple hours, both parties tend to come to a peaceful place with where they’re heading, and they also become clear that they can do such things as divide assets without my help.


Dan Simon

Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served… MORE >

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