Be Brave and Ask For What You Really Want – Tips For Family Mediation
"Behind every criticism is a wish. If I say “I wish,” I have to put myself out there. It means I want something and I can be refused. ... So instead of saying what I want, I’ll say what you didn’t do. That’s the criticism. What you didn’t do and what’s wrong with you is safer, in some bizarre way, than to tell you what is special about me and what I would’ve wanted." – Esther Perel
What is family mediation?
Family mediation is a guided conversation that helps parents navigate through what may be difficulties in their relationship to discover areas of agreement - instead of focusing on conflict. That’s really important, because spouses going through divorce ,or parents who aren’t together, almost always have some painful differences to focus on.
Mediation helps people say what they actually want and need.
I recently attended a family mediation with Traci Cherrier and was deeply impressed by what she was able to accomplish even over a zoom connection. Two parents who could barely speak to each other were able, over the course of a two-hour session, to find that they both wanted to communicate better about their child, they both wanted the child to participate with the broader families, and that there were some agreements on when the child would be with each of them. It wasn’t magic – and it took real bravery from the parents – but it reminded me that mediation can be a wonderful way to tone down the conflict.
So I called Traci and interviewed her for the blog. Here’s how our conversation went.
What are the long-term benefits of agreement on parenting issues and custody?
Parents know their family best. That includes the parents’ and kids’ temperaments, tolerance for change, the kids’ schedules, who is better at being on time, and so forth. So a parenting plan that you come up with yourselves is almost always better for your actual day to day lives than something the Court may decide. It’s also easier to stick with a plan you created yourselves. Sometimes it restores that little bit of trust because you’ve proven to each other that you can work together. And it takes a little trust to parent in different households.
What is a mediation with you like in normal times?
In a typical mediation, I meet with the parents or spouses (and their lawyers sometimes) and we have a discussion all together. That’s the thing about mediation – its about communication and negotiation. You’re here to have a conversation that, for whatever reason, you can’t have without a third person present.
So we start in a communication phase, where I guide the conversation. I want to help each person feel heard and say what they want. That’s surprisingly hard! But what I see over and over is that people are afraid to say what they actually want, or maybe they aren’t sure what they want, and instead focus on blaming the other person for something quite different. A parent who actually wants more Friday afternoons with her child because that’s the time of the week when she feels most relaxed may be stuck on how the other parent flies off the handle about homework assignments. A lot of the time, I can help steer the conversation to what is really important to people. That may look different after some conversation. In the example above, maybe Mom is looking for some peace, and having a Friday evening with her kids is one way she feels she can accomplish getting that peace.
The second part of a mediation is the negotiation phase. Once we have really gotten into the conversation, and uncovered what the parties really need, it makes sense to see if there’s any common ground. Sometimes this just means trading what is most important for one parent for something that’s equally important for the other. Often, I have people wait in separate rooms for this part of the mediation while I move back and forth, gently moving them toward an agreement. The nice thing about separation during this part of the mediation is that I can talk through things with each party that they weren’t comfortable saying with the other person present.
These two phases are really important. Sometimes we move back and forth from one to the other, and part of my job is to keep getting people back to the negotiation phase. I remind people why they were ready to move on from the discussion part of the mediation and get to the hard business of finding a solution.
How are you holding mediations with covid social distancing?
I’m using online videoconference now – like the rest of the world, right? There are actually benefits of doing it this way, which has surprised me. I think people feel comfortable being at home and are able to be a little more vulnerable, instead of in a stranger’s office. They can have their dog or cat with them. Also, separating people is actually a little easier – I just put one party into a virtual waiting room while talking with the other, or if they have an attorney present, I can put them in a breakout room.
Who is the ideal candidate for mediation?
This is a hard question – nobody, and everybody, is ideal.
Candidates who are able to reach an agreement are people who are open to discussion but are just stuck in a place where they aren’t able to communicate with each other and need assistance.
Here are some things that make for a good mediation session though. These are my tips for mediating!
1. Listening to understand, not to respond. If you can listen without planning what you’re going to say next, you’re more likely to get what’s best in the end.
2. Recognize that communication is a skill – and many people haven’t been taught this skill.
3. Recognize that we don’t naturally know how to deal with conflict in every situation. So it’s likely going to be uncomfortable – that’s actually a sign that it’s going well.
4. It’s so cliché – but we have to communicate more effectively, not necessarily more or less. Quality not quantity.
5. Be ready to change how you say something you’ve been saying for a long time. Sometimes you say the same thing over and over and the other person doesn’t hear – so part of my work is getting through that block.
6. Don’t be afraid of uncomfortable silences. Let the pause sit there for a moment. People need time to think.
7. Try not to be judgmental. That includes judging the other person and yourself. People can be very hard on themselves.
What are some common hang-ups parents have that can be resolved through mediation?
The main things that bring parents to me are parent-child contact schedules and differences in parenting styles. But when we drill down into the detail, some of the common things that come up are these:
- Communication between parents
- Parenting issues
- Kids not wanting to go to the other parent’s house
- Discipline styles
- What the kids are told about the separation
- How to introduce a new significant other
- Child support
- Homework support and what that looks like
- What is good parenting
- How to keep kids from feeling caught between the parents
What advice would you give parents in conflict?
My dream is to help parents thrive while taking care of their children, as well as themselves, which allows their kids to thrive as well:
1. Learn to help children feel heard but not responsible for their parents. For example:
o “That must be hard for you. Your other parent and I are working on figuring that out.”
o “I’m sorry you’re dealing with that, how can I help?”
o “I hear you.” Give a hug.
o Sometimes sitting in silence can go a long way.
o “I know that you’ve seen [fill in the behavior], and that’s been tough”
2. Don’t lie to your kids, but don’t share everything either. After saying one of the phrases above, say “that’s not something I’m going to include you in, it’s an adult topic.” This lets the child know that you are aware of the issue, and that it’s your responsibility, not the child’s.
3. Tell your kids it’s going to be okay, repeatedly. Really, say this: “it’s going to be okay – we are all going to be okay.” Even if you don’t know what that is going to look like yet, let them know they don’t need to take care of you. Then go look in the mirror and say it to yourself.
4. What are three things you wish people would do or think about before a mediation session?
The homework I would give people would be this:
- Try to answer this question: what do I wish would happen? This means becoming aware of yourself, your needs and your behavior – what are you bringing to the table – without judgment.
- Try to be open minded to options (this is different from agreeing with the other person!) – just recognize that there are a number of paths potentially.
- Notice what happens to you when you get angry – what happens to your body when you’re upset, physiologically. Recognizing that will be really helpful in the mediation session.
- Try to walk into the mediation thinking about what is possible, not focusing on the disagreements you already know about.
- Think about what you value. For example, for some, having things finalized, so they can move forward, has a great deal of value.
Is there anybody who shouldn’t attempt mediation?
Mediation doesn’t always work, but I think it’s worth a try in nearly every case where parents disagree about parent-child issues or are struggling with financial disagreements. I would encourage people to try it before or during the court process – there’s great potential to save time, pain, money. It helps many people proceed in a more amicable way.
Traci Cherrier has been mediating in Vermont for 9 years. She has a degree in psychology and worked in the health and human services field in the Washington, D.C. area before moving to Vermont when she became a parent. She used to work with Dr. Anthony Fauci (yes, that Fauci!) who she still refers to as “Tony”. She went through her own divorce, then went to work for her own divorce lawyer. Seeing the importance of mediation, she went back to Champlain College and became a mediator, and is now also a parent-coordinator. She’s the Case Supervisor for the Vermont Family Court Mediation Program, and teaches COPE – Coping with Separation and Divorce.