It’s a nerve wracking experience to walk into a lawyer’s office to begin the journey of sharing your intimate marital or common law history. There was no Separation 101 course available in high school and seriously, the thought of ever going through this had not crossed your mind. After a good discussion of the different ways to proceed, you’ve chosen to handle your private family law issues using the collaborative process. Your trained family law lawyer has been retained and you’ve thoughtfully prepared the list of goals you want to achieve in the process. The first collaborative meeting will be with you, your lawyer, your spouse and their lawyer. You will have a quick confidential briefing with your lawyer to go over any urgent issues, answer any last minute questions. The location and duration of the meeting is confirmed. The Preparation The best advice is to simply be prepared. Before you finalized your list of what you want to achieve, you may have taken some notes of the highs and lows of your relationship. What behaviour favoured an environment for good discussions and durable decisions? What hot buttons need to be discussed and resolved before negotiations are able to proceed? You distinguished the things you ‘need to have’, ‘the want to have’ and ‘can do without’. What do you know of your partner’s undeniable needs and long time wishes? How can the family property you jointly own be shared to leave you both satisfied? And what will your financial future look like in a one income household? Ask the big picture questions and note where your mind takes you. Consider the children’s needs. Are sharing more of the responsibilities a possibility or maybe the role you now have with the children is what you want to keep doing. The Agenda The lawyers will have sent around a draft agenda with the preliminary item identified as the review and signing of the Participation Agreement. This signed agreement starts the collaborative process. To give scope and focus to the meetings, the next agenda item sees each client presenting a list of those mutual and individual goals to accomplish. Working together not only to achieve your own goals, you will also be doing your best to help your spouse achieve theirs. This is the time for each client to express their interests and why they hold great meaning. Providing a context from the past to what’s happening today and onto the future makes it easier for both of you to find common understanding and to share each other’s perspective. Turn assumptions into thoughtful questions to learn more. This exploration of each other’s needs and desires builds trust and forges purposeful dialogue. The Environment Dialogue will be productive when egos are left outside, communication is respectful, and the room is welcoming. A round or rectangular table (absent seating at the ends of the table) permits every participant to see the other and to hear what’s being said. Erasable white boards are a good aid for those who like to develop decision trees and flow charts, tables and graphs. Interrupting a speaker, issuing threats, and inappropriate language are not permitted. All distracting phones, intercoms, and other electronic devices are turned off. A notetaker relieves the clients of having to record the decisions made and the homework for the next meeting. Snacks and beverages are usually laid out on the table. The Collaboration Collaboration begins with developing a mutual understanding what’s at stake for each client and why. The goals and reasons in support of those goals. Asking questions to elicit more information and clarification will garner client satisfaction. Insensitive queries or replaying uncomfortable war stories will not be tolerated by the lawyers in the room. Working together the clients decide which necessary documents need to be compiled and which advisors may be helpful in explaining complicated matters. Allocating resources to tend to urgent matters takes priority. The Wrap Up By the end of the typically two hour first session, timetables are scheduled for sharing disclosure and arranging the next meeting. If advisors were agreed upon, joint letters of introduction and retainers outlining the scope of the work to be completed will be prepared by the lawyers. Private debriefing by the lawyers and then with their respective clients to canvass what worked well between the clients and the guidance and direction offered by the lawyers. Discussions centering about what could be improved or topics requiring more attention are shared with each client. Client centered involvement starts up front and is a distinguishing feature of the collaborative dispute resolution process.