President Obama Offers the Takeaway

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Arguments are settled everyday, in formal and informal settings, under official and unofficial circumstances. Teachers break up student fights, neighbors step in to solve neighborhood disputes, parents sit their kids down to work out grievances while therapists counsel unhappy couples. Which of these disputes are refereed and which are mediated, and what’s the difference? Perhaps it helps to look at the role of the person in the middle.

A referee is someone to whom a problem is referred, hence the name. He or she has the task of rendering a settlement or a decision. Essentially, a referee is a judge…someone to whom both parties give the final say. The referee is impartial, otherwise the contest is a farce. The problem, of course, is that every referee shows up to the task with a bias - a blind spot, a dulled sense, a prior belief, an expectation, a thought that makes him or her less than neutral. This is human nature.

A transformative mediator, by contrast, has a lighter burden than the referee. He or she may sit in the middle, but the outcome is in the hands of the disputing parties. Transformative mediators have the luxury of claiming multi-partiality, as long as we empower both sides equally to settle their dispute in whatever way they see fit. We can want both sides to do well and to feel satisfied with the outcome. We pay attention to the process that allows the parties to work through their dispute, without having to weigh the merits of the arguments that make up the content of the dispute.

This attention to a mediator or referee’s role is germane tonight as Barack Obama hosts Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley at the White House. Is President Obama a referee or mediator? Cynics might say neither; he’s just doing damage control to deflate the hype over Gatesgate with a “Beer Summit.” Yet the moniker “The Mediator President” was attached to Obama well before this incident. His people skills, verbal and listening skills, ability to think outside of the box, to process complex lines of reasoning on the spot, and to remain calm under pressure, all make him an excellent mediator. Tonight sitting at the table with his friend and the policeman, he is more mediator than referee.

Let Obama’s generous offer to sit in the middle of this conflict be an example to the rest of us to seize opportunities to mediate conflict. Whenever we can encourage friends or colleagues to sit and talk, we create opportunities for better understanding. We don’t have to be judge or referee. Often guiding the process is all the parties involved need to begin the work to understand one another better. Though Obama wouldn’t comment on the confidential conversation that took place between Crowley and Gates tonight at the White House, he offered a takeaway that speaks to why mediation is such a powerful tool in resolving conflict: "I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart.”

Self-Determination and Divorce: A Personal Story

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In the summer of 1974, before divorce mediation was a common practice in the state of California, my parents dissolved their 22 year marriage. As a mediator I have often fantasized about how a mediation session might have delivered a different outcome for my family. If my mother had experienced self-determination and empowerment by sitting across from my father at a mediation table, early in the divorce process, she could have set our family’s path on a different course. Personal stories always bring the text to life...but first the text:

Standard I. A family mediator shall recognize that mediation is based on the principle of self-determination by the participants. Self-determination is the fundamental principle of family mediation. The mediation process relies upon the ability of participants to make their own voluntary and informed decisions. ("Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators" a joint statement by the American Arbitration Association, American Bar Association, and the Association for Conflict Resolution (2005)).

Self-determination is the hallmark of transformative mediation. It is the single determining factor in assessing whether or not the parties mediating have experienced empowerment...the holy grail, so to speak, of transformative mediation. When divorcing parties meet across the mediation table their sense of self-determination translates to feelings of increased self-esteem, improved control over decision making, an increased sense of their own power and a reduction of painful emotions. (Sara Cobb, Empowermet & Mediation: A Narrative Perspective).

Unfortunately, for our family there was no mediation. During my parent’s divorce, my mother spoke only through her lawyer, refused to ask for what she wanted, and settled into a place of hard anger toward my father that lasted the rest of her life. My mother was typical of her generation. She put all of her (six) eggs in one marriage basket. When her marriage ended, she faced difficult hurdles. As a result of our parents’ poor communication, the family suffered every time we were called together for family weddings, funerals or other occasions of importance. Our parents remained in camps, while we six children did the exhausting divorce dance...keeping them physically apart, and dividing ourselves as protectors of each camp.

How would mediation have helped my mother? What if she had braved the stress of sitting across a mediation table, had asked for what she wanted, given voice to her feelings, taken control of her divorce, and her future? I like to think that with two empowered parents, our family would have been transformed. My mother never spoke to my father, in a meaningful way, after they divorced. My wish is that instead of anger and silence, she had experienced self-determination during the divorce process, establishing a healthy pattern of interaction and communication early on. When she died a year ago, the evening of a large family wedding, my five siblings and I had spent the afternoon in two separate camps; each parent surrounded by half of their children, carefully spaced three round tables apart.

The takeaway is that family mediation provides an opportunity, early in the divorce process, to establish patterns of communication that will have an impact on a family for decades to come. Getting it started by speaking across a table, finding empowerment through self-determination, is a good way forward.

Elder Mediation: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

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June 28, 2009 - Boston Globe: “An elderly man was seriously injured after being struck by an 86-year-old woman…The accident comes just two weeks after an 89-year-old woman allegedly struck and fatally injured a 4-year-old girl…On June 2, a 93-year-old man drove his car into the entrance of a Wal-Mart, injuring six people…The next day, seven people were injured after a car driven by a 73-year-old woman jumped a curb and ran into a crowd.”

We’ve all seen these kinds of tragic headlines. Most of us know someone who, if not involved this time, could be the one at fault next time. We fail to step in because it is uncomfortable to have the talk.

Issues related to our aging American population are turning elder care into a pressing family matter. The good news is that a new path for dealing with these issues has emerged. Adult Family Mediation, based on family circle conferencing principles, provides families with a forum to talk about aging-related issues. When an elder’s faculties become diminished, the ability to drive, manage medications, attend to finances and live alone may be affected. Rather than let the situation worsen into a crisis with few choices, families are using mediation to proactively gather in a room and talk about what comes next.

Adult family mediations are a time to share information, discover options, and air feelings. When a neutral third party is present, the family dynamic shifts. Family members, who might reach an impasse in a home setting, reverting to old patterns of interaction and rivalries, bring their “better angels” to the mediation table. At the conclusion of the session, which may last an hour or two, the mediator will draw up a plan of action; a road map to guide medical staff and care providers.

Rikk Larsen, an elder mediator, describes in an NPR interview his own experience working with a family in crisis. A group of brothers and sisters, concerned about their father’s refusal to share financial information, were ready to go to court to have him declared mentally incompetent. They wanted to take over his finances themselves. Instead, a mediation led the family to a compromise. They agreed that the father’s accountant would send an assistant every two weeks to help their father pay his bills. Larsen also describes a mediation where the intense emotional pleas of the children for their father to hand over his car keys finally led the man to give them up…but not to his children. He handed them to the mediator instead.

As Bette Davis said, “Old age is no place for sissies.” Adult Family Mediation is meeting a growing need in our country for thoughtful attention to the problems of elders. The takeaway is that mediation helps elders and their families face challenging health, emotional and financial issues. Finding solutions to problems in a compassionate and dignified way gives elders peace of mind and a sense of control at a time when both are in short supply.