Expectations for the mediator were not high, especially because the kids were living way out on the plains, hours away from mom and dad: Any change in parenting would involve a relocation. This looked to be headed to trial, and there seemed little to lose if the mediation failed.
So I asked the lawyers to humor me by sitting at the back and not saying anything for a while. The whole extended family piled into a joint session. There were far more than two sides to this dispute (mom, dad, grandma, aunt to mention a few). “So, what do you all want to talk about” I asked the assembled multitude.
The family started talking without ground rules. They talked with not so much as a hint of where to go from me. “We have to get the kids enrolled in a school somewhere,” said the grandmother. Some of the participants wanted an end to it all. Others needed to re-live the entire who did what to who history. I reframed and summarized for them, and I checked in with the quieter ones that they were getting to say all they wanted. They were being helped to have a conversation that had so far eluded them.
There was a ton of emotion in play, from tearful parents pained to not experience the raising of their own children, to women in the extended family who divulged that they could not have children of their own.
The conversation went on at length. After an hour and a half, tensions quieted, and the family came round to the idea that they wanted to make some progress. It was more than the lawyers could stand. One of them asked a question. It was a helpful question, but tensions rose again.
The kind of progress the family was interested became clear. Nobody wanted to decide the children’s residence by a coin toss: that decision was headed to a judge, perhaps many months in the future. A parental responsibilities evaluator was engaged to put some neutral expertise into the mix, and an interim parenting plan was agreed upon to put an end to the chaos that had reigned before. Hours later ink was on paper. It was not a complete deal, but it was a fairly comprehensive road map towards a complete resolution.
I was trained to mediate in the win-win problem solving approach, and this was an interesting taste of something different. Sure enough, none of the professionals could stand it for too long, and we did diverge into separate rooms to hammer out the deal. But, we did not begin like that, and I do not think a deal was even a possibility before the family was helped to want one.
There are different routes to get from A to B, and opening with a free-form dialog is not an easy sell to lawyers who want mediation to almost look like court with opening statements etc. The satisfaction model of staying out of court has almost trounced the idea of self-determination through mediation. At lest for the clients, that can be a sad loss. Here it was their gain, they got what they wanted!