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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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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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