Dr Seuss, the famous writer gave us a very enlightening story of how people behave in a conflict. In that story he demonstrates how a stubborn "North-going Zax" and an equal stubborn "South-going Zax" were keep arguing of who would move away from the path so the other one would pass. Sitting firmly in their "position" the two angry Zax were leaving the life passing by without even noticing it. All their energy was focused on their opponent and their pride. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZmZzGxGpSs)
That conflict mindset is quite familiar to me as a family mediator when parents first enter into a mediation process. And, despite their hostile attitude, my job is to help them resolve their conflicts in the most amicable way and try to move on with their lives outside the painful and costly court procedure.
But is conflict necessarily a threat, where we always have to act with the primitive survival response of "fight, flight or freeze?" And why mediation (as an alternative dispute resolution) can change this myth?
This "why" question found its clear answer in my first master class in Positive Psychology (PP) several weeks ago.
Words as empathy, compassion, motivations, wellbeing, inner growth, strengths became "bulbs" in my head, that brought a totally new light to my understanding of the process and made me realize how connected Mediation is to PP and how PP tools (that mediation may be unconsciously uses) can help parents become functional again and children thrive through a divorce.
So, let's find out some things about Family Mediation (FM) and how the PP philosophy, that we find in its core, can transform negative feelings and nasty conflicts to positivity and collaboration.
The FM starts with the MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting) where the mediator gives information to the parties about the process and his role while he assesses if the case is suitable for mediation. If both parties accept to proceed and the case is suitable for mediation, the mediator arranges their joint meeting.
In this meeting, the parties have the chance to sit next to each other and share their stories, feelings and needs. After this sharing, the mediator empowers the parties to use their strengths and their knowledge of the situation to find their own solutions. The mediator doesn't impose any solution. He’s there to facilitate the conversation and keep them on the right track (with his positive and respectful attitude.) Having the faith to parties' "inner wisdom" (Hanlon-Davis), mediator encourages them to test if the solutions they suggest are fair for them and the children.
As mediation is a future-oriented process the mediator helps the parties to vision a better wellbeing, to set clear goals and work towards them. At the last part of mediation the parties sign their agreement and they give their promises to respect and apply its terms.
Throughout a FM session, the PP philosophy is present in every of its aspect.
Before the mediator enters in the mediation room he needs to be aware of his emotional and somatic state. By using meditation and breathing control exercises he prepares himself to be positive, composed and under control.
When the parties first enter in a mediation room, they realize the huge difference between a court and a mediation procedure. The room is cozy, away from loud noises and indiscrete eyes, not very big with natural light and the right temperature. Coffee, tea and snacks are in a table creating with their smell a safe place to be.
The mediator uses the first names of the parties and welcomes them with a "Duchene smile" and a strong handshake. The tone of his voice is soft, the moves of the hands gentle and the eyes follow equally both of them.
Already from the mediator's open statement, the parties feel his strong faith in their capacity to solve the problem. The mediator is the "appreciative eye" (Cooperrider,1987) which sees the best in people and tries to bring it to the surface.
Questions like: "On a scale from 1 to 10 where are you now and what can you do to move one step higher" or "If you had a magic wand and you could change the current situation what would be different", make the parties visualize their future and by using their strengths they set small goals to bridge the gap between their current situation and their ideal one. (Discrepancy Loop - Carver and Scheier)
During the "brainstorming procedure" where the parties try to find solutions the mediator acknowledge their progress, brings back to them beautiful memories (by using family photos or by asking them to remember the time where they best worked together) and gradually by using the "Building and broaden theory" he generates positive feelings to the parties. The positive feelings help them to be more creative and allow them to open up and include others in their sense of self (Waugh& Fredrickson)
If things don't go well the mediator can be creatively flexible. He can use his humor to lift parties' mood, he can propose a short break for a coffee or a walk with him in a park to clear their minds and reduce their stress.
With all the above and by targeting to the three out of five human needs of the Maslow Pyramid: Safety, Esteem and Self-Actualization, mediation builds positive emotions to people, improves their wellbeing, encourages their strengths to emerge, cultivates their resilience, helps people to reach their optimal functioning. And all of that because of its PP genes!
So, what about if PP was a compulsory module in mediation training and what about if part of a family mediation session would include PP interventions as "The three Good Things Journal" or "Monitor your destructive thinking patterns?"
Considering that divorce is close behind bereavement and unemployment in terms of their long-term negative effect on overall wellbeing (Lucas, 2003) imagine what a huge difference in parents behavior and in children's lives that would bring.
Dimitra B. Mousioli LL.B , MSc