FP conf 2023: Enhancing the client experience by helping clients learn: introducing Insight Mediation

As a divorce lawyer and mediator, I struggled for years trying to “get” clients to open up to dialogue when they seemed stuck – defending themselves, and certain of a dire post-divorce future. Despite my sincere efforts to help, I found that my educating, guiding and advising seemed to fuel their resistance and made it very hard for me to do my job, as I then defined it.

I hate being ineffective, so I went off in search of a way to understand this resistance. As I explained to delegates at this year’s Family Practice Conference, my teacher appeared in the founder of Insight Mediation, Dr Cheryl Picard. I became a student again, diving deeply into a new paradigm – and it was exhilarating!

Studying Insight helped me understand conflict in a way that resonated with my experience at work (and at home!) and it profoundly changed the way I interact with clients. Grounded in learning theory, the Insight Approach inspired me to take a learning approach to client engagement – but with less telling and more asking. I stopped trying to be the expert with the answers, and focused instead on targetted curiosity to help my clients discover important things about themselves. This led to an opening up – a drop in resistance – and a receptive client.

How does an insight learning approach work?

  1. It starts with noticing: Notice defensive behaviours (justifying, demanding, persuading, interrupting, repeating) – without thinking you know what is going on.
  2. Wonder about the behaviour: Drop assumptions and be curious. No “diagnosing”. No comparing to last week’s case.
  3. Believe the neuroscience: When someone is defending they are reacting to a perception of threat, and they are not able to learn anything new. Stop trying to make something happen. Save time and frustration.
  4. Know that when we think we know what is going on for the other person, our assumptions impair our ability to learn something new.
  5. Offer human acknowledgment of the “struggle”: How you do this will depend on your relationship, your role and the behaviours you are noticing. We might call this validation. It’s about demonstrating a sincere desire to understand.
  6. Ask about the threat behind the defending: “What are you most worried about?”, “What are you worried will happen if _____?”
  7. Listen. Stay with it until the threat is revealed – perceived or real. This is not the time to problem-solve. Efforts to do so will lead to more resistance.
  8. Ask what the person hopes will be better if they are able to have a productive discussion about their worries. In Insight this is called “The Hope Question”.
  9.  Listen. Ask.
  10. Pull together the threads of what has been learned. Summarise the values, needs, concerns or hopes that have been expressed. This is an important part of a productive learning experience. We don’t just sit in “wonder”.
  11. Be sure to verify with the client that your summary captures their meaning. “Is it this: _______?” or “Did I capture your meaning?”
  12. Use what has been learned to frame the next phase of your work. Create possibilities (options) that will meet needs, address concerns and get closer to what is hoped for. These are the essential ingredients to a good outcome.
  13. Feel the relief that curiosity brings. The neuroscience helps us here too: Curiosity benefits the giver and the receiver, bringing a sense of calm, satisfaction and tension relief to both.

The power of learning is transformative, and the beauty of Insight Mediation is that it efficiently and humanely focuses on clearing up the threats that get in the way of learning, and then facilitates dialogue that helps with understanding. All of this saves time as we can stop counter-productive problem-solving and “telling” when it is not the right time. Then, when it is the time for exploring solutions or sharing knowledge, we have receptive clients.

Jacinta Gallant is a Canadian collaborative lawyer, mediator and educator. Her resources include Our Family in Two Homes, and Designing Our Future Together.