I ask both parties to come in for an introductory meeting when they inquire about divorce mediation.
I am not a fancy person. I look professional, but I don’t often wear suits in the office. I try not to use big words, and to explain things in English, rather than legalese. I don’t think my job is to scare clients — in fact, I try to reassure them that they can get through the process, because they can.
And our conference room is not a fancy room. We sit around a simple wooden table, with simple wooden chairs that frankly, get a little uncomfortable after two hours. I like the art we have on the walls, and the room is calm and warm, but it is not slick or sleek. We have a manual typewriter than enhances the cool factor a bit, but the rest is pretty utilitarian. Because I want the focus to be on the clients’ family, and on their concerns.
We use this time to get to know each other a bit — to be honest, we are sizing each other up. I insist that they come in together because I like to meet with them together as much as possible. That way they know I am not siding with the other person behind their backs, and they see my neutrality in action. I want to make sure that they have each been given the same information.
I am also observing, though. I am looking to see whether both people are agreeing to get divorced — often, one person is way ahead of the other in their decision-making process. I am also trying to understand what the dynamic is between them — whether they seem comfortable with each other, whether one person seems to dominate the conversation, whether they argue over every little thing. And I want to know what they will need to work on. I ask questions like whether they own their home, whether they have children, whether they each have jobs… these give me ideas of how complicated the process will be. And I want to know whether they are still living together and if they are still sharing bank accounts. This lets me know where they are in the transition process.
What are they looking for? I think they are looking to see whether I am trustworthy, whether I know what I am doing, whether they feel heard and comfortable in the room. I think they want to know what it feels like to be in the room — almost no one has been through this before. They often ask me questions like ‘how long will it take? How much will it cost?’ What they don’t ask me — but I know they are wondering, is ‘how painful will this be?’
We talk about the difference between mediation and going to regular divorce lawyers. We talk about how and when to tell the children. We talk about whether lawyers need to be involved in the process at all. We talk about whether their businesses or homes will be appraised. We talk about what to expect, and what types of decisions will need to be made.
I like the introductory session because we all get a feeling of what it is like to sit together to work things out. Because really, the divorce process is a problem-solving process. My job is to help the couple make decisions that will go into a new configuration of their family.
And that simple room? It has a big window, where you can see the sky, which is helpful for brainstorming. It lets us all know that there are other possibilities. And it reminds us that there is something out there that is bigger than each of us, and bigger than this moment. That sky reminds us that there are infinite new possibilities for each of us, and better days ahead.