I participated in an excellent family mediator training on grief and loss recently at Multidoor Dispute Resolution. The training was conducted by Beverly Jones of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and Susan Bartlett, Family Court Mediator, at Multidoor Dispute Resolution. The training opened with an exercise. We were sitting around a table and were asked to write down on slips of paper: (1) people who were important to us, (2) material things that were important to us, and (3) activities that we liked to do. Then we were either asked to give several of these people or things to an unsmiling person named Death who came around to collect our slips. Sometimes Death just took slips from people without asking. At the end of the exercise we talked about how this exercise made us feel. For some of us, the exercise triggered intense feelings of grief and loss from our pasts.
As family mediators, we talked about all of the losses that our clients face when they are going through a divorce -- such as the loss of the family unit, the respect of others, the family home, the relationship and communication with a spouse, a certain lifestyle, the physical presence of the children. Emotions that our clients feel in addition to grief include disappointment, helplessness, anger, outrage, sadness, and betrayal.
Joe Epstein, Esq, and Susan Epstein, Esq. state in their article Grief, Anger, and Fear in Mediation, that "...mediators and negotiators tend to overlook the emotionally powerful issues of grief, anger, and fear. Acknowledgement of emotional factors empowers parties, creates a legitimate sense of control and fairness, and creates the opportunity to restore, preserve or enhance relationships...Being attuned to the presence and addressing the key emotions of grief, anger, and fear as they arise in the context of mediation...is more often than not the key to successful mediations."
We talked about the fact that mediation is a confidential and voluntary process that empowers the parties to work together with a neutral mediator in a collaborative way to discuss and resolve conflict. The process gives the parties the opportunity to be heard and the opportunity for positive closure. We talked about what makes a mediation successful. Some of the tools we use as mediators include paraphrasing, reframing, summarizing, asking open ended questions, and validating.
As mediators, we need to be careful that as we are validating a party's emotions, we don't compromise our neutrality or make the mediation process look like therapy. We need to know when validating is appropriate and if we have validated enough. Since the conclusion of this training, I am ever more mindful about considering how my clients may be wrestling with emotions such as grief, anger, and fear and then consciously determining how to address these emotions in mediation.
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.