Roomful of Blues: Learning to be Comfortable with Real Time Family Conflict

I first heard about the choreography of a typical family mediation many years ago. I had mediated many civil cases. Lawyers represented each party. A separate room was dedicated to each “side” of the conflict. The cases often settled in one session of a few hours.

“You are saying that you meet with the parties without their lawyers?” 

“Yes,” said my friend Kathy, a busy divorce mediator. 

“Don’t they cry and yell, uh, I mean, don’t they get emotional?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you use separate rooms?”

“Not usually. You get used to the strong emotions.  I love this work. You will, too.”

Not likely, I thought. Apparently, I had a comfort level with the anger and temporary insanity of the parties to a civil case largely because they were separated by walls. The high conflict between couples or adult siblings seemed more primal than the typical civil litigant’s outrage with perceived injustice, which was all the more reason to keep them apart.

Kathy and other colleagues urged me to take the 40 hour family law mediation training.  I signed up, figuring that I could handle the faux-primal emotions of my colleagues in role plays, if not the real thing. The trainers pitted players against each other, assigning them with secret conflicting emotions, positions, and goals. The acting was mostly amateur, but the interactions and communication between the players was realistic, striking very familiar themes of relationships in high conflict. As a trainee mediator, I tried to manage the process and understand the parties’ positions, but I could not follow my initial instinct: to move the participants to different rooms. Instead, the players were each urged to face and consider the other person’s feelings, expressed in real time, and invited to engage and propose solutions to the conflict. The fake parties would hold their emotional ground, but, sometimes, as one tiptoed into the pool of potential compromise, the other felt encouraged to make counter moves, maybe on a different issue. There was movement, and sometimes, momentum toward a global agreement on all issues.  To keep it real, some players were instructed to remain non-negotiable on almost every issue.  We were being prepared to work hard, and sometimes fail. 

Playing family law litigants immersed us in a person’s emotions, which we owned as we attempted to negotiate with our similarly possessed opponents. The experience softened my resistance to being present and comfortable with relationship conflict. It started to feel very natural to be in a position to help resolve high conflict in the moment, instead of fearing it from afar and relying on the parties’ lawyers to do the heavy lifting.

Mediation in a room without lawyers is not for everybody. Participants must be able and willing to negotiate on their own behalf, and be able to consult a lawyer before, during, and after the sessions, as necessary, and certainly before signing an agreement.

At TMG, we have worked for years helping families with difficult divorce, adult sibling, estate, and family business conflicts. We mediators appreciate being invited to help and are honored to be included in private and sometimes intimate venting of high emotion. Often, we can help by managing the process, lowering the temperature, and moving people closer to a resolution.  My initial aversion to working directly with family members venting strong feelings was misguided.  Now, I look forward to starting a high conflict mediation - the stronger the emotions, the more gratifying the resolutions.