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


How to get unstuck from a conflict

If you’re feeling stuck in a conflict situation it’s not your fault. Sure, you’re part of what’s going on, but you need to know that it’s not all about you.  In this post I share some starting points for getting unstuck and changing the conflict.

Know that’s it not you

The first part to get unstuck is to let go of guilt and stop beating yourself up for being in this situation. Know that being affected by a conflict is in no way a comment on your worth or value as a person. Conflict is normal and inevitable and will happen.

Conflicts between people nearly always connect to bigger systems that need addressing.

They point towards a reality that is being highlighted.

I wish someone had told me this when I started out in the world of work around twenty years ago. I had landed my dream job pioneering a brand new initiative. It was exhilarating and exciting. It was also complicated, unclear and full of tensions.

At the age of 22, my ego told me that I was entirely to blame and what a terrible person I was for not being able to handle it better.

Hindsight tells me that there were cracks in the way the project had been set up from the start. Anyone else would have faced similar issues. I had no clear manager, a totally over-ambitious brief that kept changing, no clear decision-making process and six people advising me from six different perspectives! No wonder I was conflicted.


Ask for support

Asking for support is vital. The longer you try to battle on alone, the worse things are likely to get. Many of us have been schooled to prize independence – me included. When it comes to handling tensions, crises and change, we all need support. The kind of support you need most will depend on the nature of the conflict and your exact situation.

Examples include:

  • Someone external to facilitate a difficult conversation.


  • A meeting with your manager to get more clarity.


  • A team conversation with clear guidelines and a skilled chair.


  • Pushing for training to develop everyone’s skills.


  • An independent mediator to help you have ‘that’ conversation.


  • 121 conflict coaching.


Trust your judgement about what support you most need.

Talk about it

This sounds so blindingly obvious it almost goes without saying. Except it doesn’t.

People e-mail, text, direct message or simply avoid each other. Often they have stopped talking. Perhaps they tried talking and it went horribly wrong. Or maybe they avoided it altogether for fear of what might come up.

Or one person voted with their feet and decided to leave.

Leaving deals with the immediate issue but what is lost in the process? The opportunity to learn from the conflict, what it wanted to show us or to the organisation as a whole.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I’ve done all of those”, don’t be hard on yourself. Most of us probably have. At the time you were doing the best you could.

If you’re stuck in a conflict situation right now, talking can be one of the hardest things to do. It can also be one of the most transformative things you can try. Talking in a safe and supported context can get things unstuck in a way that you never imagined.

It can open up opportunities to learn about yourself. It can highlight ways in which the organisation needs to change and grow.

And remember you don’t have to go it alone. An independent facilitator, mediator or coach can be worth their weight in gold.

It takes courage, commitment and determination to ask for support and to talk when you’re in a conflict situation. However, these things are key to getting unstuck and moving forward.

Get in touch if this is you and you want that kind of help. You really don’t have to do it alone.


A lesson in preparing for conflict – from a 9 year old 

When I explain to people what I do, they’re often surprised and ask me, “so what kind of organisations call you in to do conflict resolution training for them?”.

It’s a great question.


What’s behind it is usually some level of disbelief along the lines of, “who has enough conflict that they’d need training in how to handle it?”. Or even, “who would need an external mediator?”


Sometimes, it will be followed up with, “That’s so interesting. I’m really lucky though, we don’t have much conflict at our place.”


I’m not denying that this is probably accurate for them. Right now.



Conflict is inevitable


However, conflicts will happen. It is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’. The beautiful diversity of us as people is that we have different perspectives, life experiences, stories, values and viewpoints. It’s quite possible to go weeks, months or sometimes even years without much tension with others.


Then there is a change of some sort and suddenly all hell breaks loose!


A restructure and new appointments are made. A new boss and suddenly you’re being micro-managed. A new member of staff on the team who has a different way of working to others and quickly gets labelled as ‘difficult’. A troubled pupil starts at the school from a very ‘challenging’ background.


Often we feel that we should be better a handling these situations.


I think we can cut ourselves some slack here though. Let’s face it, how many of us had lessons at school in this? And even as adults, it’s only a lucky few who’ve had any high quality training in how to handle difficult situations.



Training in handling conflict well



It’s exactly that kind of conflict resolution training that can pay for itself many times over. Research has shown that just being able to identify and name our feelings makes us feel better.  This is true even when the trigger for the stress is still there.


Imagine then what is possible if we offer staff outstanding created-for-you conflict resolution training? Training that will really help when tensions arise and persist.


Creating an open culture around handling conflict can pay off many times over. It’s an investment well worth making. If you’re considering getting some specialist training, but not sure if it’s worth it, consider this: what will happen if you don’t do it?



Changing a culture



Take a school I’ve worked with over the past couple of years, for example. The headteacher needed support because conflict on the playground was escalating and some children were on the edge of being excluded. We worked with her to bring about a culture change around handling tensions.  We trained both staff and pupils in working effectively with conflict.


A group of twenty children were selected to be peer mediators. One of these boys I’ll call Luke*. Luke came into the training and I was ‘warned’ about him. “He’s on his last chance”, the Head told me.


I expected to work hard at managing his behaviour but he sat there as quiet as a mouse that first day, taking it all in and fully engaged.


By the end of the training, he had come out of his shell and was one of our star mediators. The teachers were amazed. “I can’t believe Luke”, they said in whispered tones at lunchtime. “He’s doing so well.”


At the evaluation six months later, the Headteacher told me, “Luke has completely turned his behaviour around. He has taken his role really seriously and has become a role model for others. All the children look up to the peer mediators and want to be like them.”


I spoke to her again yesterday, as we approach the end of the school term and she said, “We’ve got involved in a lot of initiatives but we’re letting go of some of them as it’s a bit much. This one, though, we want to keep doing as it’s making such a difference. The year 4 and 5 teachers have commented on what a difference it’s made in their end of year reports.”


What might have happened if they’d decided it was just too much time, effort and money to invest in the peer mediation programme?


Have you invested in any kind of conflict resolution training? If you have, I’d love to hear your thoughts below on what kind of impact it made.


*Not his real name.

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