By Philippa Johnson, Chair of the FMA
The goal of family mediation is helping families to find fair solutions that make the best of the situation the family is in. Which begs the question, what is a fair solution?
A fair solution is one that everyone in the family can make work for them.
A fair solution is one that everyone in the family will accept and will make a real commitment to.
A fair solution is one that has taken everyone’s concerns into account.
A fair solution is one that the courts and, if you have them, lawyers, will understand is one that meets the family’s needs.
A fair solution is one that will allow everyone in the family to get on with their lives.
So what will help you to find a fair solution?
- Ask questions about and reflect on what the other person is feeling and thinking – ask them what they think about the situation and really listen to the answers. Be kind, don’t blame the other person; try to think about conversations that have gone well in the past and use strategies that have worked before.
- Don’t fix yourself into a ‘position’, saying “I won’t” or “I will”. Instead find out what the other person’s needs are and explain what your needs are – when we talk about needs we mean what negotiators describe as ‘interests’, in other words the reasons behind your “position”.
- Manage your emotions. That doesn’t mean ignoring them; it can really help to explain that you have strong emotions. It does mean working out how to express those emotions in a way that doesn’t end the conversation or cause such hurt that the other person won’t listen to you. It also means accepting that the other person will also have strong emotions.
- Acknowledge what the other person is saying and feeling. It is especially important to say thank you when someone offers you something you have been saying you wanted – don’t say “thank you, but”. Just say “thank you”. If there has to be a “but” save it until later. Recognise the things that the other person is contributing and has contributed to the family and let them know that you have noticed them. If you show them that you have seen things from their perspective, they are much more likely to see things from yours.
- Make your points in a positive not a negative way. If you blame and criticise the other person they will stop listening – that is simply human nature. Suggest changes rather than explaining what is wrong. If you don’t like a suggestion that has been made, instead of rejecting it, explain what adaptation you think would work. If you can, find solutions that involve building on the other person’s suggestion, instead of building on your own. Try to offer a number of different solutions; if none of them work for the other person, ask them which one they thought was best and try to adapt that in a creative way.
- Try to identify some independent standards for what is sensible, fair and reasonable – one of the best independent standards is whether or not the solution is reciprocal – would you accept the solution you are suggesting if you were the other person? Try to let go of the idea that you have a monopoly on good sense, fairness and reason. Accept responsibility for your own feelings and your own part in the disagreement – no-one is right all the time. Try not to use language that suggests that you understand your family situation or what the children feel and that the other person does not.
- If the conversation is not going well, try not to react. Anything which pushes you back into the old patterns of conversation will probably get in the way of finding a fair solution. Instead ask what you can do to make things better.
Of course a fair solution probably isn’t the same as the solution you wanted when you were thinking about what was best for you, and it isn’t necessarily the same as the solution that you thought was best for the children. A fair solution doesn’t necessarily leave either of you feeling overjoyed. Mediation sometimes helps couples find a good solution that neither of them had thought of before but often finding a fair solution requires compromise. Compromise is rarely easy and it can leave both people a bit dissatisfied with the outcome. No-one feels thrilled about compromising – it just doesn’t sound like fun. But when the alternative is to drift around in the fog, waiting for someone else to make the first move, that’s even less like fun.
So why do we think the end of the mediation will feel like a ray of sunshine? Because finding a solution, even if it is a compromise solution, will take you out of the crisis of separation and divorce and let you start living the rest of your life. You will know that you looked at all the options and worked together to find one that all of you could live with. You will feel relieved and happy, knowing that you sorted this out between yourselves. You will be justifiably proud of the hard work you put into sorting out your family’s problems in a fair way. And that will definitely feel like a ray of sunshine.