© 2017 Louise Vandenbosch, MSW, RSW
New Ways trainer, mediator, counselor
London, Ontario, Canada
In my mediation practice, I offer private mediations to families in transition and child protection mediation to families involved with child welfare agencies. A good proportion of the mediations, involve families in high conflict custody and access matters. A few years back, I attended a NWFF mediation training that Bill Eddy gave at one of the AFCC annual conferences. The small shifts in practice were noteworthy, and since then, I have used the NWFF techniques in my mediations. I had already been offering NWFF counselling, so incorporating the skills seemed quite natural. The following highlights some of the ways that I make use of the skills and strategies of NWFF program.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation - I cannot underline enough how important this part of the process ensures that participants feel ready to enter into mediation. The majority of people coming into mediation have never mediated before, so it is all brand new to them. Taking the time to explain mediation, review the agenda for mediation, answer people’s questions and discuss with them how to prepare for mediation is key to helping people enter the physical mediation space feeling confident. This is especially important for people who need to be in control of their surroundings, as is the case for so many people exhibiting high conflict behaviours.
Introducing the “4 Big Skills” - During the intake meeting, I introduce the concept of the “4 Big Skills” to the participants. I explain how using flexible thinking, managing emotions, moderating behaviours and checking oneself can have a positive impact on the outcome of mediation. I ask them to reflect on questions such as “what do you think is your best chance to reach agreement?”, “what do you think will get in the way to reaching agreement?” and “what do you think your child learns from the other parent”?
Structure, Structure, Structure - In terms of setting up the mediation, I find that it works best if I make firm decisions about the logistics. I take into account everyone’s schedules and sensibilities but at the end of the day, I find that many people with high conflict behaviours try and control who comes, who doesn’t come, when and where they’ll meet etc. There is not always a basis for their preferences other than wanting to control the situation. As for location, I prefer my own mediation office space as I have two large mediation rooms and I can use the second room to caucus or to shuttle, if required. I do mediate off-site in other communities but it is more challenging when the space is unknown.
At the mediation itself, immediately after the Agreement to Mediate has been signed, I spend 5-10 minutes to ensure that the tone is set right. The length of time this takes is in direct proportion to how high the conflict seems to be. The more hostile the participants are towards one another, the more time I spend on setting the tone. I may ask them, “what did you learn from your mom?”, “what did you learn from your dad?” and “what do you hope that your child learns from you?” and “what do you hope that your child learns from the other parent?”. By using these and other questions from the NWFF coaching program, I try and encourage each parent to recognize the value of the other parent to the child.
Best Interest of the Child - I then get both participants thinking about the child by asking them questions such as… “what do you love best about Joelle?” and I get the parents to take turns to describe their daughter to me and what they truly love about their child. I then discuss the importance of them making decisions during the mediation that keeps Joelle at the forefront of decision-making. I talk to them about the notion of ‘best interests’. If we all agreed upon ‘best interests’ of children then children would all eat the same food, dress the same, attend the same activities etc. but that isn’t the case. It still means that parents want what is best for their child, even when they cannot agree on what is best interest.
I may ask them future thinking questions… such as “where do you see yourself in three years?” and have them comment on their work, their residence, their relationship with their children, their relationship with their parent partner.
What will your child’s story be? - If I still want to make the point of setting the right tone, I may discuss the notion that they are the creators of their child’s story. I get them to imagine when their daughter is in college and is having beers with some new friends and it comes around that people are sharing their stories (this is a common scenario and one that nearly everyone can relate to) and I ask, “what will she tell the group?”. Will she say, “my parents fought about me my whole life and I really don’t want anything to do with them anymore” (also a common scenario) or will she say, “my parents separated when I was young and even though there were some rough patches in the beginning they got along okay and they tried their best. It was pretty easy living in two houses.”
Reinforcing the Skills - Once I feel that the tone is set, I again review the “4 Big Skills” from NWFF. I have a NWFF poster which I put in a prominent place or I use flip chart paper and write up the skills; during the mediation I often draw their attention to this list during the mediation as a reminder to use these skills.
Learning to “give me 5” - Lastly, I set some ground rules for the mediation. I acknowledge that people have come to mediation with all sorts of notions in their heads and their stomachs may be quite nervous but my job is to guide them through the process, so I instruct them to relax as much as they can and to trust the process and to trust me to guide them through the process. I then set one simple rule; if anyone feels that they cannot stay and talk any longer, I ask them to ‘give me 5’. I explain that this means that they are to go to my break out room and wait for me there and I will follow shortly to talk to them for 5 minutes and then if possible, get the mediation back on track. I find that by giving people the option to leave and have a melt-down, it actually prevents melt downs.
I find that if I work really hard preparing people at intake and work really hard to gauge and massage the tone, then the rest of the mediation goes relatively well.
I nearly always keep the parents together in the same mediation room. I know some mediators have a preference for shuttle mediation but I want the parents to learn some skills as well as make decisions. I always have an extra room available in case I need to have someone caucus or stay in there as the mediation proceeds.
Making Proposals - In terms of the mediation itself, I make good use of Bill Eddy’s questions… such as “what is your proposal?”, “what do you think about their proposal?”, “do you need to ask questions to clarify the proposal?”. This isn’t a time to challenge the proposal but to clarify the proposal, a small but important distinction when you are trying to create an atmosphere of listening and understanding each other.
EAR Statements℠ - At all times, I use my EAR℠ (empathy, attention and respect) and I encourage other professionals that may participate to also use their EAR. So often I hear from family members that this person ‘kicked me out of mediation’. The parents who are most difficult to work with require our very best efforts and our highest skilled mental health professionals, lawyers and mediators to assist them to get unstuck. They are worth it and so are their children. The children are really stuck in the middle of the conflict and they deserve better or else the risk of emotional harm is very high and the cycle continues.
I find that by using the NWFF approach in the mediation process - from intake to conclusion provides me with tools in my toolkit so I become largely effective in mediating with families stuck in high conflict situations.
Louise Vandenbosch, MSW, RSW, is a registered social worker, accredited family mediator and New Ways for Families coach based in London, Ontario, Canada. Louise is one of the few ADR practitioners registered as both a Child Protection Mediator and Family Group Conferencing Coordinator. Louise is very active in the Family Group Conferencing community and is the recent past chair of the Provincial Steering Committee. Louise mediates all matters related to parenting, including decision-making, schedules, and issues related to children’s specific care needs. She is skilled at helping separating couples who have experienced conflict to reach workable, child-focused agreements with respect to their children. Read more about Louise. Louise is available to train your group on using the New Ways for Families® method in your practice.