Monday, December 31, 2020

Not Every Collaborative Client Will Be Happy

Gary Direnfeld, a collaborative social worker from Ontario, Canada, posted the following comments in response to an angry blog posting from a woman in Connecticut who felt unhappy about her experience with collaborative divorce.

His are wise words. As collaborative practice becomes increasingly mainstream, collaborative lawyers and other collaborative professionals are going to see more clients who are extremely challenging. Some may be having a particularly hard time dealing with divorce-related stress and conflict; others may be mentally ill.

With the right configuration of professional helpers, we can often assist people who have the capacity and will to work toward resolution achieve good results even in the face of very challenging circumstances, but we can't work miracles. Something like the 80/20 rule is probably at work here: 80% of the serious problems in collaborative practice arise in 20% of our cases. I visualize our clients on a bell-shaped curve, and I believe that for those on the most challenging end of that curve, no professionals and no institutions or processes can do much to alter the causes and conditions that lead to unsatisfactory divorce experiences. All we can do is our best.

As an early mentor once advised me, "Pauline, never work harder toward settlement than your client is working."

Gary's thoughts:



On roughly an annual basis I survey a sample of my past year's clients.


I mail a questionnaire containing 7 questions and provide a space for comments. I include a stamped self-addressed envelope to facilitate replies. This year I mailed out 30 questionnaires and received 13 replies.

I use the feedback to inform my practice and processes.

Invariably I receive wonderful feedback. In fact, some 92% of the folks I work with tell me my service has been very helpful in resolving the presenting problem.

Notwithstanding, I always receive 1 or 2 scathing replies, totally lambasting me and every aspect of my service. In view of those scathing replies I review my clinical notes to see what I had done with the respective client and remind myself of their issues and their manner of presentation.

I have learned that I am quite unhelpful in about 8% of cases. However, common to those cases is the fact that those clients had multiple prior treatment failures, were remarkably resistant to taking responsibility for their own contribution to family or marital distress and were non-compliant with treatment recommendations.

Despite our best efforts, there will be those persons for whom our best efforts fail. Unfortunately also common to these persons is their propensity to project or lay blame on all those around them. Further, they can be a very vocal as they project their discontent. I certainly have been vilified by the odd client who wanted nothing of what I had to say. Given we work with some of the most cantankerous people and situations, this comes as no surprise.

In view of same, it still remains constructive to hear their complaints. These difficult clients are the same ones who teach us our most valuable lessons. From them we learn the boundaries of our own helpfulness and we may even eek out some lessons in terms of how to better approach these kinds of personalities and situations.