Can Mediation Help?
I am a professional family mediator living in London and at this time of year I take many calls asking about family mediation, what it is and whether I can help.
My answer is “Usually, but I don’t have a magic wand”.
The biggest barrier to mediating separating couples is that both parties must be ready, willing and able to engage in the process. Ready in that both accept the relationship is over. Willing to commit the time and energy to a timetable which requires many enquiries and a fair bit of paper finding. Able to sit in a room with their ex and rationally discuss plans to separate the household and finances, often not by choice, and focus on the future.
Mediation is about looking at the options available in any given dispute. Mediation requires a dispute. The dispute can be about many things: over child arrangements, over money, how a couple should communicate and whether one side can call the other every day or just once a week etc. However, mediation is NOT a form of therapy. It does not seek to understand what has happened or why something has happened. The focus is on reaching a settlement that both sides can accept and it is not up to the mediator to tell the couple what that should be.
For this, we need to know what there is, what does everyone need and what are the alternatives. The mediator’s role is to ask for the relevant information and ensure that we can have the discussion about needs and options without old patterns of communication preventing a helpful conversation. This sounds easier than it is as these patterns are often entrenched and saturated with anger, sadness, anxiety and loss.
Once we have the options, we look at them from the perspective of everyone involved. Sometimes the way forward is apparent and the mediation relatively simple and quick. Other times, this second stage requires the couple to compromise; be able to see the other’s perspective and, if relevant, be able to put the needs of the children first. This stage is a big ask for any separating or divorcing couple. Division of assets starts on an assumption of a 50:50 split which is altered for need. Child arrangements start with the needs of the children, often continuing their existing routine. There is no sense of redress or compensation for the cause of the breakdown of a marriage and no protection against a unilateral and often acrimonious ending of a lengthy relationship.
This mediation process-: information gathering; looking at the options; settlement – is an arrangement which triumphs in many arenas. In addition to family mediation, I mediate between parents and local authorities in the Special Educational Needs arena. If parents (or children over 16) do not agree with a decision a local authority makes regarding an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP), they have the option of mediation. Mediation succeeds in this setting as it makes sure everyone has the same information on which decisions are being made. In the case of an EHCP, authorities often do not get a full picture from the paperwork submitted and hear many new facts when parents bring their story into the room.
Mediation does work. I have seen, over many years, many couples who arrive at a common agreement even when they are not speaking to each other outside the mediation room. Together we can understand the options and look at what can suit them best. They can find a path which gives them both most of what they need in order to move forward and accept as “fair” allowing them to move on with their lives.
However, mediation doesn’t work for everyone. Ultimately, we are not programmed to be altruistic and no one will voluntarily give up what they perceive they absolutely need for their future. The job of the mediator such as myself is, amongst other things, to broaden the lens of those involved to help them explore what different futures may look like to the one they had planned and, in part, to stress test how much they are prepared to move from their vision towards this new future.
Mediators bring a neutral perspective, empathy and skill to the process. We use our experience to provide a safe space to step back from the conflict and focus on the future. We employ our expertise to give security and hope during this difficult time, but we do not have a magic wand.