When I am working with a divorcing couple using a Mediation or Collaborative Practice approach, one of my primary goals (besides working out an equitable agreement between the two soon-to-be exes) is to model healthy dispute resolution skills in action. My intention in doing this is so that they will learn enough to be able to apply this type of behavior in their future co-parenting endeavors or other interactions with each other.
Teach a Man to Fish
To truly be of long-term help to my clients long after they stop working actively with me, I need to enable them to become problem-solvers on their own. As the old adage goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Ask the Right Questions
I have learned that my most important role as a Mediator is asking the right questions, not simply providing answers. One of my favorite questions to ask a couple pursuing divorce is something along the lines of: “If you only have one orange and both of you want it, do we simply cut the orange in half?” This gets them thinking. The quick answer would be, “Yes, that seems like the fair thing to do.” But as we discuss the situation, we usually come to the conclusion that a better answer would be, “No, we should find out why each of us wants the orange.” It may be that the husband wants the orange rind so he can zest it for baking, while the wife wants the fruity part so she can eat it. By talking the matter out together, the couple will learn more about each other and be better able to reach an agreement that suits both of them.
Find Out “Why”
When I bring up curious questions that ask “why,” I am able to go beyond people’s positions and begin to look at their interests. As I peel back the layers, I start to understand their needs versus their wants.
For example, when a parent insists on having the children 50% of the time – even though s/he might need to travel a lot for his or her job, or may have unusual work hours that make such an arrangement impossible – I try to find out what is behind the request. Is it a fear of losing touch with the children? Is it a concern that others might view him or her as an inferior parent? Is it a focus on a parent’s own preferences rather than on what might work best for the children? There are many possibilities, and almost as many answers.
By examining the problem and taking an honest look at the concerns, we can often work out an arrangement that suits everyone. Perhaps we can set up regular video conferencing times if one parent is traveling frequently. We could also arrange for one parent to have more time in the summer when schedules are more flexible. There might even be an option no one has thought of yet until we start looking for solutions together.
Look Beyond the Obvious
A skilled Mediator needs to look beyond the obvious in an effort to help figure out how to meet everyone’s needs or goals (or at least as many as possible). I try to inspire the two parties to approach issues differently than they may have in the past. The way they problem-solved (or failed to do so) during their marriage obviously did not work well for them, or else they would not be where they are now. If they can learn to step back, approach situations differently, and look at things in a new light, they will likely do better in all aspects of their life, which is particularly important when it comes to parenting.