One of the main objectives in mediation is to give people insights. Insights that help them understand the effect of their actions and of their style of communication on their families. This responsibility does not stop with divorce – where there are children it becomes even more important. Sharing parental duties and responsibilities is more complex through circumstances. Mediators try to help people commit to changing to improve outcomes for their children, as well as make life easier and less stressful for themselves as parents.
Everyone perceives the world from their own perspective. It takes empathy to imagine events from another’s perspective and helping to achieve that without accusation or blame is a mediation skill. For example, a parent with a long journey around the M25 in the rush hour may be exhausted and irritable by the time they arrive to see their children. If the children have conked out and gone to bed and the other parent angrily relays the disappointment of their offspring, conflict is probable. Add the guilt induced through hearing the account of their children waiting with noses pressed against the window watching for them and the scene is set for trouble. Situations like this are standard fare in family mediation. The same or similar scenes present in a multitude of variations, but the underlying problems are the same. There is the disappointment of the children, the exhaustion anger and disappointment of the parents. The couple’s own history of miscommunication brings them to this latest re-enactment of their disastrous repetition of previous recriminations, accusations and blame.
Can the mediator intervene effectively enough to help them break the habits of a life-time? Can insights bring about change? It depends how much people want to change. Surprisingly, the worse it is for them, the more likely they are to decide (and it has to be a joint decision) to commit to ground rules to stop the re-enactments of the past. Next Friday the mediator will not be there, but the rules agreed with her in mediation will be in their minds and hopefully the scene is set for a different outcome.
Much communication is either non-verbal or relayed partly through expression and tone of voice. The same words can convey completely opposite meanings if said angrily than if said in a soft affectionate way. Some people have learned to negotiate assertively in large pushy families and others have learned to negotiate totally differently, by offering and declining, and needing to be pressed to accept something they really desire. Then there are cultural and other layers of meaning that can cause complete confusion, it is a wonder we understand each other as well as we do.
It is common to find in mediation that a couple are repeating a train track type conversation, they have had countless times. They know it ends in dead-lock, but seem to be irresistibly drawn to repeat it. “See, it’s hopeless s/he doesn’t understand . . . ” The appeal is to the mediator to translate. This is called re-framing. The mediator hears what is said and re-phrases it so the other person gets the meaning. This can be through a more neutral form of words or different tone of voice, or both.
Many couples want the mediator to shuttle between them to spare themselves the stress of having to meet. That can work well, but if parents have to communicate over children, then shuttle mediation is unlikely to help much, as they parents need to learn to understand each other without the mediator. By not meeting and communicating with the mediator’s help, shuttle mediation does not help mend the underlying communication problem. Mediation is the main – if not only method parents can gain the insights they need to make changes enabling them to communicate better in future, unless they attend counselling, despite their separation.