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Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 126) — The Members of Your Epistemic Community

Oblique Divorce Strategy #22 — Who are the members of your epistemic community?

If asked, the members of my epistemic community for this column would agree that this title will alienate more readers than it will attract. The title so perfectly describes what I have to say that I am willing to risk a failure of communication. In practical terms that risk, for me, is very small.

I'm writing for an audience of people in transition and in pain. A normal part of the process is the failure of old methods to solve new problems, which is frequently accompanied by a sense of being stuck.

Each of them — each of you — has an epistemic community for your divorce. You probably have a different epistemic community for each of several parts of your case.

I first heard the term epistemic community during an interview of MIT computer scientist Scott Aaronson (Rationally Speaking Podcast #143).

He proposed that when given a specific issue to work on, all the participants in a discourse initiated to find a solution will reach the same conclusion if the discourse is properly managed and certain rules are observed, which sounds like the Pre-Socratic notion of "The Dialectic" but originality or lack thereof is of no concern for our purposes.

One of Aaronson's rules is that all the members of the epistemic community who convened to solve the problem have the requisite intelligence, training, experience, temperament and attitude to have the potential for making a contribution to the enterprise.

For Aaronson the community was composed of other M.I.T. professors and a few other academics around the world. It didn't include his wife or his mother.

When frustrated by the failure of old ways or demoralized by an apparent stall, the people of divorce seek comfort from friends and family — and the same people may become the source of guidance for future behavior and attitudes. Maybe they're the best people to be talking to, but it's unlikely.

At the very least, a person who is displeased or concerned by a perceived lack of progress should take a minute to write down the members of his or her divorce epistemic community. Then review and critique its composition.

Some examples of questions to ask yourself include the following:

» Does this person have access to the most complete and accurate version of the divorce story presently available?

» Will he or she be updated as the story unfolds, and will that person see the final version of any settlement?

» Why do I value his or her opinion or judgment?

» Does he or she have access to knowledge or information that I don't have?

» Do I have a good idea of the beliefs and values that drive his are her opinions? How similar are they to my own?

» Why is this person involved in my divorce, and does he or she have a preferred outcome?

» If this person isn't a paid professional, why is he or she listening to me talk about my divorce? Is he or she getting something out of it, such as an opportunity to feel superior or an opportunity to relive his or her divorce?

» On balance, is this person likely to help me end this ordeal as a better person than I was at the outset?

I did not consult my epistemic community over the title for this column because I know in advance that their advice — though probably correct — would make me reluctant to take a risk I want to take and that I can easily afford (because it involves close to nothing).

This is very different from the risks confronted by people of divorce. For them the risk is whether they will be better at the end than they were at the beginning. What's at stake is the big enchilada.

No matter how talented you may be, it's not a good idea to submit a book for publication if no one else has read it to correct errors and to give feedback about whether the words you use are likely to communicate the ideas you want to express.

But if you have one or more other people look at your draft, you still don't want to have it read by someone who has a history of squishing your creative efforts, and you don't want the copy editor to be someone who can't spell.

A client rarely tells me about the identity and qualifications of the people in their divorce epistemic community, and I don't ask until I hear loud complaints about failure and a lack of perceived progress.

When diagnosing the cause of impasse, the most likely suspect is third party interference. This is usually covert activity and influenced by friends, family, the court or professionals.

When the case is in mediation the first step is to identify everyone involved in the divorce and each party's belief about everyone's qualifications and motives for involvement. Qualifications could mean professional credentials or access to information, motivation, attitude and values.

The exercise of making the identities and the qualifications of the people in their epistemic communities explicit is usually enough to effect the discharge of those who are having (or who are likely to have) a negative effect on the outcome.

If this isn't enough, the next step is easy and amazingly effective. The mediator starts with the most likely suspect and works down the list by recommending to either or both parties that this person be invited to attend the next mediation session.

If a party objects to the recommended inclusion, the problem becomes self-evident and, once exposed, almost always disappears by itself.

If the parties agree that an invitation may be extended, this can be done without concern about what will happen next because the invitee can be counted on to decline.

They are never willing to come to the table, speak their piece and thereby become accountable for what they say. They never come.

After that refusal, regardless of their reasons, they will have lost their membership in the community.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #23 — Driving away from a gas pump with the hose nozzle still in your gas tank is a good thing.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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