By Laura Melton Tucker, www.peacewisemediation.com
It is a privilege to sit inside of a conflict, which is what I do as a mediator. Or rather, on a GOOD day, it’s what I do. A bad day for a mediator is when the conflict never shows up in all of its layers and complications. I had two of these kinds of mediations recently. Each one felt like a blow to the chest…or, more specifically, to my heart. The first was a telephone mediation between divorced parents in different states. With several children traveling back and forth between them, they needed to discuss a modification order filed by the parent who was now primary care giver to a child who had previously only visited. The parent had just told her side of the story when I asked the other parent to fill in more details. “No thank you, “ came the response over the phone. “I’m now exercising my right to terminate this mediation. I want the record to show that I’ve met my court requirement to mediate.” Boom. Mediation over.
In the second mediation, both people were present in the room, but one refused to talk. He said wasn’t talking because there was nothing new to say, nor was he interested in listening because he’d heard it all before. This statement inflamed the other party, who started to vent – loudly. In return, the silent one stood up, “I’m outta here.” Mediation is voluntary. No one requires parties to stay and talk. The only requirement is that people hear about mediation and choose whether to enter into it. Sometimes, on bad days, they don’t enter – they exit.
But a longer conversation has much to offer to the parties who choose to mediate: a moment of peaked curiosity that opens a pathway to insight. Let me explain. Frequently, both parties arrive discouraged about their prospects for finding resolution. After all, would they be in mediation if they could solve their problems? But then the moment comes. They hear the other person say something and they get curious. That’s the moment when people shift from knowing (what’s wrong, what’s unfixable, what’s impossible) to learning. Let me demonstrate how this works by telling about a couple I met with recently. (Their story has been altered to protect their privacy.)
Like the parents described above, these people divorced years ago, but a custody modification order brought them back to mediation. One of the parents was seeking supervised visits because of the other parent’s newly revealed drug problem. Concerned for the safety of her children, she was convinced that restricting the father’s access to the children was her only way to protect them. The father listened intently to his ex-wife’s account, and vigorously attacked her portrayal of both his drug problem and the risk it posed to the children. Each person felt threatened by the other’s position. Each risked losing everything.
Things changed, however, when the attack and defend mode of the conversation shifted. After the mother’s impassioned description of her fear for the children’s safety, her ex-husband agreed that she had a reason to be afraid. This stopped the mother mid-sentence. The father’s agreement was confusing. Hadn’t he just been telling her she was wrong about the kids being in danger? Her expression changed. She was curious. The father explained himself. He offered a summary of the mistakes he’d made. He filled in details about his treatment and rehabilitation that the mother hadn’t yet heard. He took responsibility and asked for her help in keeping the kids in his life while conceding that she needed reassurance of their safety. They came to an understanding
This couple’s agreement is a fragile one. They crafted a two-month trial to see if daily drug tests can assuage the mother’s fears as the father rebuilds her trust and spends time with his children. Rather than flee, they chose to stay in the room and have a courageous conversation. The takeaway from this couple’s story is that mediation offers an opportunity to reassess what we think we know, in order to learn something new. This is when we trade misconceptions for insight. This is how a different path forward is forged.