By Terri Breer
Several years ago, I was at a workshop presented by Bill Eddy, Esq., LCSW when he talked about a simple technique that can be used in mediation to shift people out of blame and intensity into a calmer, problem-solving mode. The technique is called “So What’s Your Proposal.”
Here is how it works. When you find that one party to a dispute is blaming the other party, complaining unceasingly about a current situation, or only has negative, unproductive things to say about a current issue, the complaining party is asked to make a proposal that they think will resolve the dispute or solve their current complaint. Proposals should include WHO will do WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE. The other party is then encouraged to ask questions about the proposal. The other party then responds with “Yes.” “No.” Or: “I’ll think about it.”
There are certain triggers during a divorce mediation that will cause me to use this technique. For example, suppose that Mom has been angrily venting by providing Dad a comprehensive list of complaints that she has about the current parenting plan. She may say things like “It’s not fair that you would have the children every Friday afternoon,” “You don’t see them anyway, you just send your mother (or girlfriend) to pick them up from school when I could be doing that,” “Your son never sees you anyway since you are always working late and you’re not home until 7 or 8 pm on Friday,” etc. After listening to a litany of Mom’s complaints related to her dissatisfaction with the parenting schedule, I might say the following: “I understand you are unhappy with the current schedule and it sounds like you would like to change it, so what’s your proposal? Do you have another schedule in mind?”
This will get Mom to propose what she might prefer instead and shifts her focus from the blame game. It will also reveal whether Mom just needed to vent, or if she really feels strongly that the parties need to adopt a different parenting plan that avoids her complaints about Friday nights. Mom could say, “I propose that you pick the kids up from my house on Saturday mornings at 9:00 am instead of Friday after school, and that instead of returning them to me on Sunday nights that you take them to school in the morning on Mondays?” This specific proposal will then allow Dad to respond, with “Yes, I’ll agree to that,” or he could respond “No, but I will agree to X.” He can suggest a modification to Mom’s proposal, or he may simply say “Let me think about it.” Regardless of Dad’s response, it will move the parties into considering other parenting options and stop the unproductive tirade of a frustrated Mom.
Suppose that a Husband is upset about a spousal support amount that his Wife has requested, and has a number of negative things to say to his Wife about the support amount: “I don’t know how you expect me to live if I pay you that amount for spousal support.” “Do you want me to pay for private school or not? I can’t pay you what you want and still pay for tuition.” “You just refuse to accept reality.” “If you hadn’t spent so much money on our credit cards we wouldn’t be in this mess,” etc. Here I might interject: “I understand that you think support is too high, is there another amount that you think would be more appropriate? What’s your proposal?” The Husband might respond by suggesting a lower support amount, or maybe he will propose that spousal support stay the same, but that he wants his Wife to agree to pay a certain percentage of the tuition costs, or he may request that his Wife be responsible for a greater share of the credit card debt. When the complaining party is asked to pause and formulate a proposal that is more satisfactory, the party shifts to a more productive problem-solving mode.
Michelle Huff, J.D author of The Transformative Negotiator: Changing the Way we Come to Agreement from the Inside Out describes the technique this way, “you can immediately stop the negativity and gently shift participants from all-or-nothing into flexible thinking. This practice is useful not just for those of us who deal with high conflict people, but in any situation where the parties are stuck in negotiations and need to generate creative options.”
The technique is one that works well for professional mediators, but it can be equally effective when the parties use this technique outside of mediation to resolve their own disputes. The individual party who is experiencing a litany of complaints from a spouse or ex-spouse can simply ask, “So what do you propose we do instead?”
Whether you are a professional mediator or one of the parties to a mediation, try this technique. I am sure your will discover that Bill Eddy’s technique “So What’s Your Proposal?” is a valuable and effective tool in resolving disputes both in and out of mediation.