My job, as a divorce mediator, is to help people come to resolution about parenting, child and spousal support, and dividing their assets. As you can imagine, these conversations can become quite heated, because the participants are talking about their families and their homes — people and things that are most dear to them – with someone they often no longer trust. My role is to guide the conversation, listen to each person deeply, and to help them find common ground. I have noticed some things participants can do to help the process along, which I share with you:
1) Prepare yourself mentally
Your attitude is key. It can be helpful to set a guiding principle or standard of behavior for your own conduct before you go in. What happens in these meetings will shape the rest of your lives. You want to look back in five years and be proud of the way you dealt with this conflict. What values are most important to you? For instance, you might say, “I treated him (or her) with dignity and kindness.” Or “I did what was right, I did what was fair.” These are just a few examples, of course. Bring your best self to the table.
One of the hardest parts of listening to someone you have been in conflict with is that it seems that you have often heard the same old argument a million times. But have you really? Try to listen without interrupting or being defensive. It is very difficult to negotiate with someone unless you hear where they are coming from. You don’t have to agree with your ex, but at least listen to what he or she is saying.
Try practicing with other people before mediating. Just listen to what they are saying – without judgment, without necessarily even responding. You can learn a lot about them by the words they choose to use and the gestures they make.
Also listen to what you are saying and how you are saying it. Are you expressing yourself the way you want to? Are you saying what you really mean? Is your voice strong and confident or shaky and scared? Are you being your best self?
This is all much harder to do than it sounds (especially with someone who sets you off!) but it gets easier with practice. Practice, practice, practice!
3) Focus on the future.
You are here to make the future go more smoothly, not to assign blame for things that have happened in the past. Of course, past events will inform your decisions, but try not to dwell there. Try to communicate your own wishes and needs using “I” statements. This is one of the biggest differences between therapy and mediation — you are here to come out with an agreement that will govern future behavior. Think of this as a problem solving session – not a gripe session.
4) Do your homework
Be prepared. If you are talking about alimony or child support, for instance, figure out a budget – know how much you are spending now, what the children’s expenses are, and what you need to live on. If you are talking about transfer of property, be clear about whose name the property is in currently, and what has to be done to change that. If you are talking about selling the house, look online to get a realistic sense of how much your house is worth. Information is power. The more you know going in, the better a negotiator you can be.
5) Know what the Issues Are
Often the mediator will start by asking you each to define or describe the question or problem you are trying to solve, but you can certainly think about this before you meet. What topics need to be discussed? What issues need to be worked out? Think about exactly what problems you are trying to solve. You and your ex might have different agendas – everything that is of concern to either of you should be addressed.
6) Focus on what you really need.
Notice I said ‘focus on what you need,’ not what you want. It’s not always about compromise – it is about both people getting what is really needed. There is an old story about 2 chefs fighting over an orange. They both insist on having it. ‘Let’s compromise,’ one says. ‘We will each take half.’ Does that help them? Sort of. The mediator digs deeper. Why do they need the orange? One needs it in order to make orange juice. The other needs the zest to make a pound cake. So one takes the pith and other takes the juice, and they both meet their real needs.
If the proposed agreement does not look exactly like the one you envisioned, ask yourself if you can live with it anyway, and if it still meets your needs. Is it realistic for you? What adjustments will you have to make in order to make it work? You are looking for the best solution given what is available to your family.
7) The shortest distance is not always a straight line.
Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself. Realize that there may be many smaller agreements you have to come to before you come to a larger one. And the road is not straight.
Some things might be easy to resolve, others harder. Work on the easy things first, to kind of “warm up” your resolution skills to work on the hard stuff later.
Divorce Mediation is, in itself, a learning process, and the mediator will coach you each of these things. But the more work you do in advance to prepare the more smoothly it will go!