Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Mediation Doesn't Work

Two observations: 1) I think optimism is a required personality trait for mediators; and 2) when mediation does not solve the problem, the optimistic mediator may be devastated.

Not everyone is cut out to be a mediator. Similarly, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher or a police officer or a therapist or long distance truck driver, etc. We all have natural abilities which can be enhanced with skills training and there are some things, no matter how much training we have, that we just can't be taught. I think irrational optimism is one of them. And I have to confess that I am an irrational optimist. Yes, I think it makes me a good mediator and it has some other upsides in the rest of my life that I can't complain about, but it also has a downside (that would be the "irrational" part).

As an irrational optimist, I truly believe that anything is possible in mediation despite a history between the parties of a complete
inability to reach an agreement - on anything. Not all couples are unable to reach agreements on anything. Some mediating couples just need help and guidance through the divorce process or to come up with a good parenting plan in a separation. Other mediating couples are able to reach agreements on certain things but just need some help in generating creative options for settlement and to figure out what feels fair between them. And other mediating couples are not able to agree on anything and it's often amazing that they both agreed to use my services in the first place.

So there are low-conflict couples and there are high-conflict couples and everything in between. But even the high-conflict couples are usually able to reach agreements in mediation because they were able to work together at least to get themselves to my office. This means I generally have the pleasure of working with couples who, despite a difficult situation, want to maintain some level of civility in working through their divorce and I am happy to help them accomplish that even when they have not been able to agree on anything (sometimes since well before their separation).

I think it's this irrational optimism that results in a feeling of incredulity and something like emotional devastation when one of my cases "falls out of mediation." This does not happen very often. In the last five years of solely mediating family law matters, I have had only a couple cases fall out of mediation. One of those happened this week. In fact, I have had more couples end mediation because they are reconciling than I have had couples end mediation because there was no hope of reaching an agreement.

In an earlier case, I agreed (for the first time in my 10 years as an attorney) that mediation was no longer appropriate even though an agreement had been reached. They were a high-conflict couple and they truly needed more mental health support than mediation typically provides. Although we are able to deal with the emotional aspects of divorce in mediation, some couples need far more support, which is when I recommend the Collaborative Law Process which includes a divorce coach and mental health experts as well as attorneys who all agree to stay out of court. It's not a cheap option, but it is much kinder and supportive (and yes, less expensive) than traditional litigation. Even though I agreed mediation was no longer right for them, I was still shocked that it came to that, particularly since they had reached an agreement through mediation and it was only afterward that the agreement fell apart.

In this more recent case, I'm not convinced that the couple can't continue their work together in mediation to reach a settlement but it has fallen out of mediation nevertheless. Maybe this is my irrational optimism or maybe it's what I know from practicing law for 10 years and spending more time in a courtroom than I care to remember. But if 90% of cases settle before trial, and if all along the way to trial, settlement discussions and conferences are required, why not short circuit all that pre-trial and trial work and focus efforts on reaching a settlement now? It's not easy - it's still a divorce and it's still an emotionally and financially complex situation that nobody wants to find themselves in and there are going to be ups and downs and hard decisions that need to be made. And it only works if both parties want to reach a settlement and do the work needed to get to that point.

Mediation is a voluntary process and I can't make anyone continue with something that isn't working for them. I can only wish them the best of luck and keep my door open in case there's a chance I can help in the future. Because that's the other personality trait needed for a mediator: a sincere desire to help others to get through a difficult time with as little pain and scarring as possible under the circumstances.

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