Mediation when “all (s)he wants is to fight”

The burly, young tradesman sitting in my kitchen last week was tapping the side of his coffee mug as he told me the story of his divorce.  It had taken place many years ago but the topic, very obviously, continued to stir up intense emotions in what seemed to be an otherwise pretty even-keeled guy.

At first I thought the main sore point was the substantial monthly instalments he was still making to pay his divorce lawyer’s fees.  Listening more carefully, though, I realized that what was troubling him the most was his ex-spouse’s behaviour at the time of their split-up – or, at least, his perception of her behaviour.  As he saw it, she had done everything she could to wreck his life.  She had been completely unreasonable, wanted a fight at any cost, had forced him into a lengthy court battle he didn’t want and couldn’t afford, and had taken every last dime and business asset she could lay her hands on, including his backhoe.

Perhaps it was the scrunched-up look of sympathy on my face, or perhaps he just felt it was time to change the topic; whatever the reason, the young man abruptly stopped his story.  “So,” he said “I sure wish I’d known about family mediation back then. But what could you have done anyway?  Mediators can’t help when one of the people just wants to fight, can they?

I must say these are the moments when I love my work the most.  The enthusiastic answer I gave him isn’t the point here, however.  His wonderful, seemingly simple question went so much to the heart of what mediation is about that I was left wondering:  How would our distance mediation team members – the experts on this topic – have responded to him?  So, I challenged them to tell us, “off the top of their heads” and in three sentences or less.

Here are their answers to the young tradesman’s question:

  • Absolutely – everybody in conflict believes the other person “just wants to fight” and is being unreasonable.  Resolving the conflict doesn’t mean you will see eye-to-eye…resolving the conflict is about understanding why the other is seeing, doing or saying what they are; once we understand something we’re no longer at odds with it.
  • It is not my job to talk anyone into mediation but, for most people, the “fight” response is actually defensive rather than aggressive.  When they hear there is another way which will enable them to be heard and their interests to be addressed, they are very willing to give it a try and usually we are successful.
  • It’s quite common after separation that parents will have heightened emotions and responses, given the stress and changes they are experiencing which can lead to arguments/disagreements.  It can be challenging to hear each other and communicate at this time.  What can happen from participating in a mediation process is learning a new way of communicating with each other, understanding the issues to resolve and coming up with creative solutions that you (the parents) decide will be best for your family.
  • I am going to assume that as the decision to mediate is consensual, that if both parties want to mediate and they both have an understanding of the process, that they have moved beyond the need to fight and the complaint is not about one side just wanting to fight but more about that person’s style of negotiation. Exception to that would be where one or the other of the parties is using the mediation process to extend either their power over the other party or their need to continue to engage the other party no matter how negatively.  Where I don’t think mediation works is if one or the other party, or both, suffer from personality disorders because then it’s not about resolution, it’s about the disorder.
  • I do think ‘a fighting mentality’ can be an excellent opportunity for a mediator to intervene, assess and assist this client and the family.  After intervention (individual/joint sessions), if a client/parent is still unable to let go of the ‘fight’, can’t move to a place of respectful, collaborative communication, and/or focus on finding a resolution, then other dispute resolution options may need to be considered/explored with the family.  In other words, at some point the client may need to let go of this fight (with the help of the mediator) for mediation to progress and be successful in getting a resolution.
  • One option is for the mediator to set boundaries very clearly as to when mediation can be accessed and what is needed as far as the client’s participation is concerned. The mediator can influence the intrinsic motivation for the client to participate in mediation, while the boundaries can motivate the client by matching his or her need for control and power.
  • This is exactly when a mediator can help. You’ve described perfectly the main ingredient of conflict – every conflict is a conflict because we can’t understand what the other person is doing/saying/wanting, and it is certainly not bringing about the outcome we want no matter how hard we try to get there.  That is the very nub of conflict.

While these responses come too late to change how the tradesman’s divorce issues were resolved, it may not be too late for you if you are going through a marital split-up.

What do you think – is mediation worth a try “when all (s)he wants is to fight”?

Photo:  “Wreckage” by Susanna Jani

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