As a practitioner, one of the questions that doesn’t often get asked is, what’s the purpose of mediation? Exactly what do we think we are doing when we sit in a room with our clients? It is not that these questions aren’t important to practitioners, it’s just that we tend to focus on what the clients bring and go from there.
Fortunately, I’m also a trainer – and have in a number of workshops, posed these questions to my mediator colleagues. Their answers are interesting. Many focus on the pragmatic – that our job is to get people to agreements. And certainly this is an outcome valued by a number of interested parties – including the people in the room, not to mention funders and those who have to market mediation. However, I don’t believe it’s the whole story.
At this point, I should probably admit to a bias. I came into mediation not to achieve agreements, but to work towards world peace. I went to university to study international relations, with the intention of taking a further degree in international law, then join the US Foreign Service to trot around the world like Henry Kissinger (who I saw on my television screen as I was growing up) and bring world peace.
That’s not quite what happened. Having said that, I used to imagine that God supported my plan, advising me to start with divorcing couples and work my way up. And yet, world peace isn’t achieved by waving a magic wand and simply transforming tribes or nations. World peace happens one heart, one mind, one soul at a time. So divorcing couples, angry neighbours or conflicted colleagues are perfectly fine contexts for working towards world peace.
And I believe peace is potentially on offer in family mediation. Peace is not the same as conflict-resolution, which equates to taking the guns away (which I think is almost always a good thing). Peace isn’t yet peace if people still have hate and revenge in their hearts. If they are still eaten up by blame and judgment. From a practice perspective, it is precisely these ‘negative’ aspects that can be brought into the mediation room with the intention of expressing, acknowledging and moving on.
None of this is easy. Peace isn’t something that necessarily happens on a regular basis in the course of our work. It is the ideal. But I think it is vital to have such ideals, to hold out for what’s best in us. When people come into mediation, I often say to them that they have my respect from the start – that mediation is bloody hard work. To sit in a room with someone you struggle with and try to sort things out is work for grown-ups. And their willingness to give it a go earns my sincere admiration.
After all, if what they were looking for was simply an agreement, they could avoid much of the emotional and mental hassle and stress by handing the whole thing over to a solicitor or judge. It seems to me that mediation offers people a chance to take charge of their lives – in the good times and the bad times. There is something about owning one’s pleasures and one’s pain.
Which brings me to conflict. Conflict is not a comfortable place for most of us. The number one strategy for dealing with conflict is to avoid it, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to hope that it goes away. Mostly, of course, what actually goes away is the relationship. Mediation offers people an opportunity to see conflict as something that can be faced square on, to be ‘digested’ so that it doesn’t become infectious. All too often it can feel like conflict is running our lives. Mediation is a process that encourages us to make choices that are not simply determined by the emotional fallout of separation or divorce.
I also think mediation in this day and age, is somewhat counter-cultural, insofar as it argues against the contractual nature of relationships. If relationships really are contracts – like signing up for a new mobile phone – then it makes perfect sense to walk away without regret or responsibility if the contract doesn’t prove satisfying or a better offer comes along. In a contractual world, relationships become disposable.
Mediators know that the notion of the ‘broken family’ is a very poor description of reality. Parents may not live together, but they are still parents. One of the things that I frequently say as a mediator is that people can separate as partners, but that they are stuck together forever as parents. Children are unlikely to stage two weddings – one for mum and one for dad. Or to guarantee that they will give birth to twins. Since the parental relationship is forever, it makes sense to figure out how to do it fairly early on. Doing so means that all concerned have the best chance for a healthy and moderately happy life. Or at least, a less miserable and stressful one.
And this is where peace comes in. One of the things we rarely talk about in mediation is forgiveness. Partly because it is often too soon, too raw – and people are struggling with basic civility much less anything as highfaluting as forgiveness. Yet, if mediation goes well – and parties emerge feeling they’ve made the best decisions they can for themselves and their children – where they’ve refused to be dominated by conflict or blame or guilt – I believe they have reclaimed a bit of fundamental human territory.
Mediation matters because we aren’t born fully human – we have to learn, develop, grow into our humanity. In this respect, peace is more developmental than conflict, because peace requires us to confront our own nature – and work with that. More often than not, we are the blockages to peace. Mediation matters because it illuminates these blockages and invites us to take responsibility for the life we helped create. And as far as I can tell, that’s a large part of what it means to be a grown-up.
Before I finish, I want to shrink the lens, move back down to the level of practical agreements. These are important. People need to find ways to move on, to get past a particularly messy, miserable, stuck place. Mediation can help people find a way forward, to reach agreements that make it possible on a number of levels – financially, emotionally, practically – to get on with their lives. This isn’t an inconsequential step. Mediation matters because staying stuck, revolving endlessly around the same black hole, isn’t any way to spend a life.
It is this joint capacity – to deal both with the humanly practical and the humanly possible, that truly makes mediation matter.