My friend, let’s call her Cathy, has had a difficult relationship with her widowed father for a while now. She is part of an informal, blended family. Her father lives in a nearby city and is not married, but has been living with a woman for several years. The father lives in the woman’s house, spends summers at her summer house, is close with her daughter’s family, and overall has slipped comfortably into his significant other’s life. Cathy has been devastated. According to Cathy, her father’s girlfriend, let’s call her Mrs. X, has made no attempt to draw Cathy and her nuclear family into this extended, blended family. Instead of her traditional family holiday celebrations, the whole new family is included in holiday traditions that they would not normally celebrate, since they are not all the same religion. For Cathy, this has created a lot of resentment towards her father. Doesn’t he see what’s happening? Doesn’t he see that she’s left out. Why doesn’t he stick up for her? She and her father had some awful blowout fights and can hardly say a civil word to each other. The tension has gone so far as to effect Cathy’s brother and his family. Last year, I suggested to Cathy that she consider mediation so they can learn to listen and speak to one another and come out with a plan to go forward. Instead, she convinced her father to try therapy with her, and each committed to two months. Her father didn’t make it past the fourth session.
Last week I sat down to ask her why she didn’t chose mediation. Interestingly enough, her answers were based on a misunderstanding of mediation and the process. Where as a friend did I go wrong?? I think we both made assumptions without ever clarifying the options. She went to therapy because she needed to get some of the old hurts and pain her father had caused dealt with and discussed, even though he has alway opposed doing that. Her therapist thought that this could work for them. It didn’t. Her father didn’t believe in therapy to begin with. Her father has a stereotypical view of therapy and who needs therapy and it doesn’t include him. This was not a realistic method for him to resolve any problems. His biases were already in place. She didn’t go to mediation because she didn’t think she would have the opportunity to communicate her pain and hurt he has caused her.
Now I explained the mediation process. How we interview each of them beforehand to find out their perception of the issues and then schedule one open-ended session where the issues are discussed in a non-confrontational way and hopefully, agreements are reached and the parties are able to talk to one another after they leave. Emotions come out, and there is room for it in the process, but we, as mediators, are going to keep the parties talking and focused on the issues they have identified. Cathy had an immediate problem: she and her father were losing their relationship. We insure the parties speak and listen to one another, and actually hear one another. Mediation is a problem oriented process. It helps people resolve their conflicts, focusing on the problem at hand, and gives the parties a means to move ahead. Cathy would have been able to communicate her emotions and hurt, but in the end she and her father would have learned how to talk and listen effectively , be considerate of each other, and avoid ‘pushing each other’s buttons’.
Without asking, Cathy said, “we should have gone to mediation.” So, what were the selling points that indicated this was the better route? A la Letterman, let’s start with:
- Number 4. Her father would have been more open to a process that wasn’t a therapeutic framework. Given his original biases, he was less likely to function well in that context.
- Number 3: Although it was important for her to have her father hear her hurt and what the issues were for them, it would have taken them far longer than the time allotted, and possible, for them to really get into and resolve the roots of some of their problems.
- Number 2 is the realization that she would have gotten skills that she could use when future problems arose. Her pain and emotions would be part of the session but the emphasis would have been on how they could go forward, which was the immediate problem for her.
- And what she consider as the all important Number 1 is the ability to resolve the problems in one session. She left frustrated every time the therapy session ended and nothing was resolved. Whatever momentum they achieved, was lost when the time was up. She feels the opportunity to work through in one long session might have been a key point in helping them work through their issues productively.
Next time, I will try to be as clear with my friends as I am in my formal presentations.