She served first. Exhibit one was his new girlfriend, posing as the real mother at school events, even signing papers with her name hyphenated to his. He countered with a swift shot at her boyfriend who was informally coaching their daughter at tennis. The boyfriend was getting in his face, trying to be “dad” at her twice-weekly tennis lessons. He was a father wanting to enjoy his time with his daughter, and it was his turf the boyfriend was trampling on.
It can be helpful to let the parties tell their stories in a way that lets them have the complete experience of their feelings. Even to the point that they feel it is all out there and visible. The first problem here was to take them through this without bloodshed.
People in conflict feel bad and as a consequence they need sympathy. Mediators re-frame to help get the story out, and ensure that everyone hears it, but that does not guarantee that all the participants get the sympathy and support that they crave.
Nobody gets sympathy if they tell their story from the empowered perspective, so everyone tells it from the powerless perspective of the victim. This was a joint session, and each parent was channeling hurt as they struck at each other. Each was hurt by the other’s new partner in life. It was a blame game in full tilt, each deflected blame from themselves, and toward the other as they batted the ball back and forth.
Needless to say, blame and fault are not helpful to solving a problem, so the key move is to re-direct people away from blame. Sometimes, it can work to ask questions, and engage the parties in mutually accepting responsibility for the situation. Neither of these parties was eager to turn towards themselves: it was sympathy they wanted, so no fault would be easily admitted.
What was needed was a move into a positive direction. In a lull between sets, I asked what a perfect fix would look like. That led them into to a conversation of how to get there. It emerged that each of their significant others needed a talking to, and they both knew it. Neither of them really liked the person the other was with, but both parents knew that they needed a continuing relationship for their daughter’s sake. They had needed to express their distaste for the new partners. This was keenly felt, and it was probably not going to go away. It helped to get that realization out on the table.
They began to talk in some detail about the kind of a relationship they each wanted to have going forward. Words were invited to describe it. Each gave permission to the other to express any disagreement. The goal was is to take the time to explore and reach consensus. They did just that.
The pace had cooled, and had become non-violent. Each made promises to the other. As a mediator, I asked if they each proposed to live up to their words. They of course said yes! As a final move, I asked whether anyone had permission to stop the conversation if things were not working. They committed to keep talking once they had left, and even to come back into mediation if necessary.
They had left the blame game behind, and in so doing had moved beyond playing the victim. They now had an iterative way of moving forward, by having agreed to keep a future focused conversation going.