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Mediation that prevents homelessness

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

When young people hit major conflicts with their parents or siblings, it can lead to them leaving or being thrown out of the house. The third in my series of guest blog posts is by Beth Owens, my mentee and a mediator for families in crisis. She shares here about the support she offers to families and the impact it can have.

“I am a family mediator working for Depaul UK, a charity whose aim it is to prevent homelessness amongst young people. To give you a better idea of what I do, read Jake’s story* here and imagine yourself in his shoes.

Jake’s story*

You are a 16 year old boy living at home with your mum, your 13 year old brother and your 10 year old sister. Your brother has autism and your sister has cerebral palsy. It is hard work because your mum is always getting at you. To top it off, she gives all her attention to your brother and sister, who need help all the time.

Mostly, you’ve learned to look after yourself and keep out of the way.

Everything went wrong in December when you had a huge bust up with your mum.

All you’d done was ask her for a bike for Christmas and she lost the plot! Shouting and screaming and saying you never did anything around the house to help and how dare you ask for a bike and lots of worse things besides.

Well, this was the last straw. You felt unwanted and pushed out, so you stormed off, stayed at a mate’s house for a few nights. Ever since, you have been going to and fro, choosing to go home only when you know your mum is not there. Sometimes you sleep in your own bed and sneak out when you know your mum is busy with your brother or sister.

Other times, you sleep on mates’ sofas. It’s getting tricky though because your friends still live with their parents and you feel like they’re starting to get fed up with it. You’re worried about where to go and have considered just staying up all night to avoid having to go home.

You don’t want to speak to your mum.

Out of the blue you get a call from a woman called Beth who says she wants to help. It’s a bit weird, but she takes you out for a McDonalds and she seems OK. She at least listens to what you’ve got to say.

This situation is a real life example of a family I’ve worked with. Usually, I get a call either directly from a parent or from a social worker about the fact they are having difficulties and would like some support.

The first thing I do is go and meet with each family member individually to get to know them. I listen to what is going on from their perspective and aim to build trust. It must be extremely hard for families to allow an unknown outsider into their personal circumstances.

I need them to see that I’m someone who can be trusted. Often this takes several sessions of meeting with parents and the young people involved to build the relationship.

Sometimes they are ready to come together in a family meeting and speak openly and honestly in a safe space. This is held somewhere away from the family home. After one family session I held, the mother said to me, “You have such a good way of speaking to teenagers as well as adults Beth, you must find your job so rewarding”.

Other times it’s not possible to get the family together and I have adapted the traditional mediation model to working with families in complex crises.Jake’s* situation outlined above is an example where I used indirect mediation.

The mum was having a stressful time with two disabled children to look after, had financial issues and was trying to find the time to study and work. Meanwhile, Jake* was trying to find work and felt ‘pushed out’ and ‘unwanted’ at home. They were both at a stalemate and not willing to speak to each other.

I met with them separately and with their permission, I passed on what was said from our sessions to each other. Over time they began to understand each other’s point of view.

When Jake was ready, I supported him to pick up the phone and call his mum to wish her a happy birthday. She was delighted! This helped to get the relationship back on track and Jake said to me, “I’m doing really well now. Thank you. I’d been wanting to call my mum for agers but couldn’t.”

Jake now has his own accommodation and is speaking to his mum regularly.

I want to be clear here that this all takes time. I worked with Jake’s family for three months to get them to a point where I was no longer needed.

When I mention the word mediation to the young people I work with, I don’t usually get a very warm response! “Isn’t that for when you get divorced?” “You’re not making me sit in a room to have therapy with my family are you?”. There can be a misconception of what mediation is and how it works, especially when working within the field of homelessness.

I think it’s safe to say that all families experience difficulties and sometimes these difficulties can become complex. There can be a range of triggers: bereavement, a history of trauma, financial worries, substance misuse or struggles around communication, rule setting or pushing boundaries.

However, if these issues go unaddressed it may lead to heated arguments potentially resulting in a young person running away or being kicked out of the home.

At Depaul UK our mission is to prevent and ultimately to end homelessness. Our method of mediating with families takes into account the varied nature of individual cases to support families to remain together in the way that best suits them.

However, if these issues go unaddressed it may lead to heated arguments potentially resulting in a young person running away or being kicked out of the home.”

Bethany Owens is a family support worker and mediator working for Depaul UK in Manchester. Depaul UK continue to offer listening and mediation support to families in crisis throughout the Covid-19 lockdown. If you know of a family who might appreciate the kind of support outlined in this article, please get in touch at Familysupport.GM@depaulcharity.org.uk.

*Not his real name. Some other details have also been changed to protect confidentiality.

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When Family Mediation offers so much more than a settlement

Harli Marten

While I’m not trained in family mediation, it is often something that I get asked about.

The second in my series of guest blog posts is by my good friend and Family Mediator, Laura Mackey. She offers her thoughts on what family mediation can do for couples who are separating. I hope you will agree, it is inspiring reading.

” As a family mediator, I work with people going through a separation or divorce. My clients are couples who want to reach an agreement so that they can draw a line and move on.

Typically, they need to sort out property, finances and often childcare arrangements.

What couples don’t always expect -or perhaps dare to hope for -is that mediation can help them to improve their relationship. This often seems an impossibility.

Bob and Jane’s story

Take the example of a couple I worked with a little while back. I’ll call them Bob and Jane.

Bob and Jane had separated two years previously, almost overnight, after 10 years of marriage.

They hadn’t seen or spoken to one another since that sudden end to their relationship. They came to me because their divorce was approaching and they needed to sort out their finances and property arrangements.

Both Jane and Bob were extremely nervous about facing each other in the mediation room and needed coaching to get to the point of being ready for that.

However, they were both also courageous people who were willing to try, despite their misgivings.

In that first face to face meeting, the atmosphere in the room was heavy. There was a lot of hurt, anger and fear expressed as they took it in turns to speak and listen to one another. It was not always easy and I had huge respect for them in sticking it out.

As they worked through their finances, it became clear that they wanted and needed to talk about what had happened. Following their lead, I supported them to address the traumatic end to their marriage and to rebuild their communication after a long silence.

Building understanding and empathy

We had three joint meetings. During these sessions, Jane and Bob reached a point where they were able to acknowledge the love and the good times they’d had together, as well as the difficulties and reasons for ending the relationship.

For the second and third joint meetings, they arrived and left together. And by the end, they were able to laugh and share tender moments with one another.

When one of them got upset in the meeting, the other would offer comfort. It was touching to see their transformation through the process.

Reaching a joint agreement

Mediation helped this couple to sort their property and finances for their divorce, which is an amazing outcome – saving them time, money and further upset. Mediation also provided a chance for them to heal from the trauma of their relationship breakdown and ending.

The benefits of a transformative model

The method I’ve described above is referred to as a ‘facilitative’ or ‘transformative’ approach to mediation. It is client-led and focuses on both the outcome and the relationship, aiming to create a win-win for both people involved.

This is the process that I use because I believe that it offers the best possible experience for my clients. A solid agreement and an opportunity to connect with one another, where that is wanted and needed.

As with any mediation process, client autonomy is paramount. I never persuade or encourage people to engage with one another at that level where that is not what they themselves want.

However, I believe that I’d be doing a disservice to my clients if I were to focus on a purely outcome-driven, agreement-focused model of mediation.

Another advantage of this model, is that it can help to build foundations for constructive co-parenting long into the future. It can also help parents to model healthy communication and relationships for their children.

There is no limit to what mediation can offer to clients when it takes a person-centred approach with no judgement or persuasion. “

Laura Mackey is a family mediator, registered with the Family Mediation Council, based in Manchester, UK. She works at Children First Family Mediation – a charity, working with separating couples on children and finance issues:   www.childrenfirstfamilymediation.org.uk

If you or a friend or family member are going through a separation, you can find a family mediator in your area (of England and Wales) using the search tool on the Family Mediation Council website: www.familymediationcouncil.org.uk/find-local-mediator

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The power of a true apology – and why is it so hard to do?

The mediation session between Sarah* and Sandra* had gone well so far, but there hadn’t been quite the breakthrough that I’d hoped for. Sarah had admitted posting some things on social media about her work situation and had apologised to Sandra for this and for not talking to her directly. These were encouraging signs.

However, Sandra had not acknowledged the apology and I was starting to feel tired with the effort of encouraging them to hear one another more fully. I decided to call a coffee break and then check in with each of them individually. Privately, I asked them how they felt it was going, and reminded them of what they had said they wanted to get out of the joint session when we’d met previously.

Both agreed that they wanted to continue.

When I restarted the joint meeting, Sandra turned to Sarah and issued a whole-hearted and unqualified apology. Immediately, the tension began to dissolve and the conversation between them opened up.

They both shared openly what had happened and I was able to gradually guide them towards thinking about the future and how they wanted to move forwards. They reached a workable agreement and when I contacted them again a year later, they were happily working together.

In reflecting on this case, I was struck by the power of a true apology and also how rare it is. Courageously, Sarah had taken the first steps. Because it was genuine, it had the effect of transforming the situation once Sandra was able to hear it. So what makes a true apology?

These are some of the key elements. You can tell a genuine apology when it:

  • Comes from the heart, not from the head. This is hard to quantify but you know it when you see it and hear it.

  • Acknowledges the harm done to the other person or people.

  • Accepts and acknowledges your part in the situation – not necessarily taking full responsibility but admitting that you had a part to play.

  • Has no qualifications or justifications attached to it.

  • Comes with a willingness to hear the other person’s perspective. Again this is hard to quantify but it will emerge in the conversation whether or not this willingness is present.

  • Is offered voluntarily, never ‘required’.

The reverse is also true, you can recognise an apology that is not genuine when:

  • The body language betrays a lack of respect, such as arms folded, rolling eyes, tone of voice, tutting, despite the person ‘saying the right thing’.

  • There is no acknowledgement of harm.

  • The person does not accept the part they played in the situation.

  • They say things like, “I’m sorry if you felt that way…”, “I’m sorry it’s come to this but….” . These phrases are usually followed by an explanation, justification or qualification about why they behaved the way they did.

  • There is a lack of willingness to really hear the other’s perspective.

I also started to reflect on why saying sorry is so hard for most of us and I think there are a number of reasons for this.

We operate in a society that values expressions of strength and apologising is often seen as admitting failure.

As children, many of us were forced to apologise to our siblings or to friends before we were ready and before we were given a chance to tell our story. This was done with the best of intentions, usually to teach us social skills, and yet for many of us it felt deeply unfair because what we really needed was to be heard and acknowledged ourselves. The ‘sorry’ was probably needed, but later on when we’d had a chance to calm down and been listened to.

Finally, many of us have a deep rooted fear that in some way we are ‘wrong’, a failure, not good enough, an imposter and so on. At a subconscious level, we confuse admitting that we’ve made a mistake and done something we regret, with admitting that we’re fundamentally wrong as a person, something that deep-down many of us fear anyway. 

A true apology comes from a place of strength and it takes tremendous courage and discipline. Never doubt the power it can have to transform a relationship.

 

*Not their real names. Names and some other details have been changed to protect identity.

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Why the small things matter in communication

In working with people as a mediator I’ve noticed a pattern about how differences turn into conflicts.

Usually, there is a single important event that happens between two people. It can be something said or done, or an e-mail or text message. I call this event a ‘precipitating moment’. From this moment one person starts to distrust the other just a little bit and from there it grows.

Let’s take a typical story. Sarah and Karen* worked for a medium sized charity based in different teams. On a new health project, their work crossed over and they needed to work together and liaise with the same external partners for the first time. Karen had been with the organisation for twelve years to Sarah’s seven months.

Karen prided herself on her attention to detail and good relationship with partners. Sarah was excited about the new role and keen to get stuck in. They had two partner meetings where Sarah suggested some ideas that Karen thought were not properly thought out. Karen said as much in the meetings and afterwards she’d got a number of ‘angry’ e-mails from Sarah.

Sarah, on the other hand, was getting frustrated. This was her first big project and she was keen to make an impact, but Karen was blocking her ideas. She e-mailed Karen to try and sort it out and they e-mailed back and forth but the messages became more and more heated.

Eventually, they just stopped communicating.

The ‘precipitating event’ in this story was the first partner meeting where Karen spoke of her concerns about Sarah’s ideas. This is where they started to distrust each other. The thinking goes, “I have been wronged, my perspective is right and they are at fault.” It becomes ‘me’ against ‘her’.

If I’m lucky as a mediator this goes on for a few months and then I’m brought in. More often though, this pattern goes on for a few years before it is dealt with and then I am contacted.

In this story, both women gained supporters for their point of view. Bringing others onboard creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario, which is another common pattern.  By this stage, often people stop using names and simply refer to ‘her’ or ‘they’.

In this case, the project limped on for a year until their senior manager found out what was going on. She tried to help by supporting Sarah’s side, which only made matters worse. The project was handed over to others and a mediator was brought in.

After an individual meeting with the mediator and one joint session together, they were able to sort out their differences and mend the relationship.

In fact, they booked a monthly lunch date to catch up since their manager had just won another contract that needed them to work together.

What went wrong?

Communication between Karen and Sarah was a big part of it. Although ideally they could have met before the very first partner meeting, they were both new to the work and feeling their way into it. However, after that first meeting, they could have recognised that there were some tensions they needed to talk about before the next partner meeting. It seemed quicker and easier to sort it out over e-mail so that is was they tried to do.

This seems like such a small thing but in my experience e-mail communication almost never works where there’s tension. Often it makes the situation worse, takes longer and creates more stress.

Meeting in person would have been much more effective, even if they had ended up arguing. 

However, like most of us, Sarah and Karen have never been taught how to ‘disagree well’ and were both feeling rather annoyed and frustrated. In truth, they were anxious about the idea of speaking face to face, so they avoided it.

Once they talked together with the mediator’s support they resolved the issues in one day. The conflict had gone on for a while so it took hard work and commitment, but they each apologised to one another and were able to understand each other’s perspectives much better. Together, they created a working agreement.

As well as these external events there were also a series of internal reactions and decisions made by Sarah and Karen. After that first meeting, each of them started to form thoughts and judgments in their minds about the other person, their behaviour, motives and even their core character.

This is a natural tendency when we find ourselves strongly disagreeing with someone else. It quickly becomes not just about us having different ideas, but about them being flawed as a person. These beliefs often come from a place of fear and anxiety about our own worth. It takes conscious effort, discipline and a choice to trust to move away from those beliefs and meet with ‘the other’. However, it is what can make the world of difference.

Changing the way we deal with disagreements starts with noticing them and making a conscious choice to do it differently this time.

Because conflicts always begin with the small things.

That is why they matter so much.

 

 

*not their real names. The story has had key details changed to protect anonymity.

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