Mediating the issues that parties have in an ongoing relationship is one of the most satisfying uses of mediation I know. It is wonderfully complex and non-linear, employs all the skills of a mediator and thrives on unadulterated self-determination. Relationship mediation involves such parties as married couples, divorced parents, co-workers, friends, romantic couples, or related parties; in other words: any pair or group of people in an ongoing relationship. A recent mediation is a case in point. It involved a divorced couple, still passionate in their feelings, yet so different in their sensibilities that every simple interaction was fraught with intense emotion.
A couple such as this that chooses relationship mediation is expressing a belief in the other person: the belief is that despite the difficulty, the other person has positive intentions which can be unearthed by dialogue. This expression of trust alone — the expression of trust that is evidenced by coming to mediation — is a source of safety and comfort for both parties, and fuels some of the good feeling and positive outcome that ensues.
The fundamental truth in most such mediations is that one or both parties misunderstands the other. One party during a discussion may say something innocuous, such as “I’ll think about this”, and the other hears it as: I’m going to decide this on my own; I’m going to cut off this discussion; I’m not taking this seriously. Clarifying that the first person really meant simply that he needed time to think goes a very long way toward repairing the problem. Discussing how he might have expressed it differently so as to convey what he meant more clearly– and also alerting the listener that he may be hearing things differently than they are intended — may set the stage for a more productive future interaction.
Yet this type of clarification is often necessary but not always sufficent. The baring of feelings, the expression of pent up emotions, the realization that the other person is as affected by the problems of the interaction — all of this sets the stage for some kind of transformation. And when the transformation comes — if it comes in the room — it is palpable. Tensions are released; people are smiling, relaxed, joking; the world is set right again.
There are many ways that the conversation can unfold, but in my experience the way that yields the most positive transformative result is to interfere little in the conversation. The parties know what they want to say. The mediator’s job is to notice when it goes off track and becomes unproductive, to point out what each person is saying (especially if it is not being heard by the other party) and to make sure the parties don’t forget to think about how they can use what they have learned in their future interactions. It is also helpful for the mediator to not be too ambitious. When the parties have reached their saturation point, they should recognize it and stop.
The difficulty of these mediations is that parties are often entrenched in ways of interacting. If parties have been interacting in a certain way for many years, based upon the nature of their personalities and experiences, how can one expect that they will learn to do it differently? I find that the parties themselves provide the answers to this dilemma. I ask at some point in the mediation: will you remember what we discussed here? What would be helpful to remembering it? The parties know themselves and will suggest what they will need to do to make adjustments in their interactions and to remember what they need to do. Some couples can come for a two hour mediation once every six months or a year, and that is all the adjustment they need. I don’t know all that transpires between sessions, but the fact that they come for one session and then come back months later says something powerful about what has been accomplished.