This article appeared in the January/February 1997 issue of The California Therapist. It is reprinted with permission of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and the author.
All too often some people thrive only when there is an adversary to challenge. Rather
than seeking common ground, some refuse to budge and choose to justify their positions.
Rather than settle peacefully, some prefer to score points, as if life were a debate.
Hostility sets up barriers between people–marked by judgments, blame and
A rabbi who had lost his family in the Holocaust and who had emigrated to America wrote, before he departed Germany, about his feelings toward the Third Reich. Before he left he decided to forgive the German government, and especially Adolph Hitler, because he did not want to “bring Hitler to America.”
It’s hard to forgive. Hate makes people feel powerful. But by failing to forgive,
people stay emotionally handcuffed to the person who caused the hurt–a deeply
significant lesson in life that the rabbi understood.
For those who are genuinely interested in setting hostility aside and discovering a way
to peacefully resolve conflicts, there is an option: mediation. It involves two or more
people who can’t agree on a solution to their problem and a mediator. It offers an
accepting space where people can tell their stories to a professional whom they trust. A
mediator is a neutral who has no stake in the outcome of the mediation, who doesn’t
take sides in the dispute, and who assists the participants in creating their own mutually
The goal of a mediator is to foster a fair environment that facilitates mutual,
respectful problem-solving efforts by the parties. To reach that goal, a mediator tries to
assist those involved in the conflict to communicate clearly with each other, identify
their own needs and then work together to develop a solution that meets those needs.
One of the advantages of mediation is that it tends to be much less adversarial than a
grievance or courtroom process. Unlike a judge or an arbitrator, the mediator does not
make decisions for the parties involved. Rather than assign blame or fault, the mediator
focuses on helping people find a solution.
At the outset of a mediation, the disputing parties are typically caught in blame and
hostile feelings toward each other. But if one of the parties withdraws blame and takes
personal responsibility for past actions, it immediately changes the relationship–creating
the best chance for progress for both persons in the relationship.
When they break the cycle of blame and stop finding fault with each other, they find
themselves better able to move forward to resolve the issues that originally gave birth to
the mutual hostility.
Mediators are neither counselors nor therapists. Mediators help focus attention on
specific problems or issues. The mediator guides those in conflict through a series of
problem-solving steps so they can find their own solutions.
For a mediation to realize its full potential for transforming the negative relationship
between disputants, the parties need to engage themselves wholeheartedly in the
mediation process. This means that all parties agree to:
The following, fairly typical mediation, recently took place in a meeting room at a
local community center. The names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of
The mediator, Ms. Borden, is at the head of the table. Mr. Sanchez, a divorced Latino
civil engineer in his early fifties who has four teen-age and adult daughters, is on the left
of Ms. Borden. He is sitting upright in his chair trying to appear at ease. Ms. Fields, a
divorced Caucasian office worker in her late forties who has two young daughters, is
across from Mr. Sanchez. She appears confident with her hands folded neatly in her lap.
Mr. Sanchez brought suit against Ms. Fields, his former fiancee, claiming she owed
him for expenses he had incurred in connection with their aborted wedding. Following a
heated argument that took place four months after they became engaged, Ms. Fields
called off the wedding. Mr. Sanchez claimed that Ms. Fields broke off the engagement
and therefore should pay for the wedding and engagement rings and other wedding
related expenses. The judge recommended they mediate their dispute prior to their court
Ms. Borden begins: Before we start I want to go over some ground rules. Each of
you will have an opportunity to give me your account of the events as you experienced
them. I want you to be respectful, listen to the other person and not use abusive
language. Express your feelings as fully as you possibly can. Later I will ask you to talk
directly to each other. One of the main reasons I am here is to help you with the process
of talking to one another. I will not take sides nor will I let things get out of hand. When
the time is right, I will try to help you work out some kind of agreement. If you cannot
come to an agreement, that is all right, but hopefully you will.”
Mr. Sanchez: “I did nothing to provoke Ms. Fields into breaking off our engagement.
I love her and truly admire her, and I was really looking forward to putting my past
behind me and marrying her. I took out an unsecured loan for $5,000 for one reason
only–so that I could pay for all the wedding expenses. I admit I argued with her over
where we were going to live after the wedding. But I’m a pretty flexible guy–we could
have ironed all that out. I tried numerous times to call her to apologize for getting upset
with her, but she refused to talk with me. I was totally shocked when I heard that she
had canceled the wedding arrangements. She had no business doing that.”
Ms. Fields: “When we became engaged, Mr. Sanchez promised me that after the
wedding we would live in my house. That meant a lot to me because I didn’t want the
lives of my two daughters to be disrupted any more than was absolutely necessary. Then
he broke his promise. He told me he had changed his mind and that after the wedding
we were going to live in his house. When he said that I just knew in my gut that the
engagement was off. If I couldn’t trust him to keep his word on where we were going to
live, I was afraid I couldn’t trust him on anything. So I canceled all the arrangements.
Since he broke the engagement, he should be responsible for paying for all the wedding expenses.
Ms. Borden, the mediator, helped Mr. Sanchez and Ms. Fields to express their specific
issues, concerns, and feelings during the telling of their stories, which enabled them to
better understand both sides of the dispute. Then, she had each one in turn speak directly
to the other person and restate his or her understanding of the other’s point of view.
This enabled them to understand the disagreement from the other’s perspective and
ultimately to take responsibility for their part in the dispute.
Ms. Fields finally told Mr. Sanchez that she still loved him but that his violent temper,
which she had not experienced before their argument, had opened her eyes to another
side of him. She painfully concluded that the differences between his Latino culture and
her own upbringing would be insurmountable if they were to marry. She took
responsibility for misjudging him and admitted that it was the main factor that had led to
her calling off the wedding plans. Reluctantly, she agreed to pay her share of the
Mr. Sanchez made an eloquent appeal to Ms. Fields to renew their engagement
pointing out that he had been a model fiance prior to their argument and that every
couple is going to have a disagreement now and then. But all his efforts to persuade her
fell on deaf ears. He finally accepted the fact that his violent outburst had destroyed her
trust in him. In the end, he gave up his suit against her and accepted her offer to split the
wedding expenses. Although bittersweet, a resolution nonetheless!
Afterwards, on the evaluation forms provided by the mediator, Ms. Fields and Mr.
Sanchez generally expressed satisfaction about participating in the process of mediation.
They acknowledged that they had had opportunities during the mediation to experience
awareness of and empathy for the other person’s feelings. They emphasized the
humanness of the mediation experience compared to the depersonalized procedures they
would have experienced had they gone to court. They stated that communicating face-to-face with the individual who had to absorb the other person’s offensive behavior is
strikingly different from dealing with a judge in a courtroom.
In a mediation, participants discuss with the mediator whatever issues they consider
to be relevant, without having to fear that the content will be judged. They have control
over the decision-making in the process and do not face the risk of a decision that is
made without feedback or consultation. Furthermore, due to the win-win nature of the
process and the resolution of the conflict, they greatly increase the chances of improving
In California, competent mediators complete at least 40 hours of training and
subscribe to ethical standards set forth by the professional organization to which they
belong. Having a qualified mediator, however, does not guarantee a successful outcome.
For example, one of the participants in a mediation may be uninterested in resolving the
conflict, and may instead, be looking for weaknesses that can be exploited in subsequent
litigation–even though communications in mediations are confidential and cannot be
used as evidence.
Despite occasional misfires, about 80-90 percent of all disputes submitted to
mediation are successfully resolved. In those instances where mediation fails, it may be
advisable for the mediator to refer one or both parties to appropriate professionals, such
as marriage counselors, for extended therapeutic help.
People go into a mediation holding on to hatred and blame, and to the rightness
of their cause, which is emotionally exciting and profoundly comforting.
In the end, they exchange these feelings and positions for the healing
of wounds and a mutually agreed-upon resolution.