Preparing for Success

Learn how to prepare for a successful outcome from divorce mediation, as this article enables you to focus on your specific goals and commit to obtaining them.

By Karin Vagiste
Updated: March 06, 2015
Divorce Mediation

In mediation, having a clearly defined goal that you're committed to achieving is what will keep you on track during the rough spots. Here's how to prepare for success. 

Success never just happens. Think back to an accomplishment that made you feel particularly proud. Most likely you persevered through a variety of challenges, unwilling to quit. A clearly defined goal was what kept you on track. It's the same with solving a conflict. Success is dependent on having prepared your desired goal in advance.

If you don't know what you want, there's a very good chance you'll never get it! And if you're not committed to your goal, you probably won't be sufficiently motivated to stick around long enough to complete the six-step mediation process. This process becomes meaningful once the benefits of achieving a goal are deeply felt. Passion energizes you and keeps you focused on moving forward.

Here's an overview of the mediation process.

STEP ONE: Agree to follow the ground rules (below). They promote a positive, problem-solving atmosphere.

STEP TWO: Exchange your thoughts and feelings about the dispute.

STEP THREE: Explore unmet interests and needs. Determine common ground. Discuss goals.

STEP FOUR: Brainstorm for solutions that address the interests and needs of both parties.

STEP FIVE: Evaluate the possible solutions, and then select one with which both parties can agree.

STEP SIX: Prepare a contract that both parties will sign. Discuss follow-up plans.

The third step is the most important one. The final agreement will be good only if it addresses the goals that surface in step three. A goal encompasses both legal rights and human needs and interests. Some inter-personal disputes will not involve legal rights.

The Ground Rules

The ground rules help to ensure that civilized behavior is maintained.

• There is to be no character defamation.

• No one, except the mediator, is permitted to interrupt another person who is talking.

• If young people are present, we state that put-downs and blaming aren't allowed.

• Everything you hear must be kept confidential.

• All the information that's relevant to the case must be brought forward honestly.

• The mediator checks that the people who have the authority to settle the dispute are present.

Goal creation

A goal is not a fixed point. Think of it as a flexible circle within which a range of agreements could occur. It is a good idea to create this circle of possibilities a week before your mediation meeting. Ideas take time to shape and jell, to expand and synthesize. There's probably a line you wouldn't consider crossing in order to achieve your goal, so define that boundary. Roll up your sleeves and begin forming your goal.

There would be no dispute if needs were being met, so a goal statement clearly reveals the unmet needs. An entire book could be written about the wide variety of human needs, both conscious and subconscious. The words below will give you an idea of what some of our basic needs are.


  • fairness
  • security
  • recognition
  • respect
  • equality
  • satisfaction
  • trust
  • privacy
  • acceptance
  • love
  • accomplishment
  • economic well-being
  • control over one's life
  • being taken seriously
  • being listened to
  • being understood

During the mediation meeting, be aware that the other person may need extra time to sort out his or her needs. If you're ready to move on and begin to feel restless, then excuse yourself from the room for a few minutes. Your absence will take the pressure off the other person to give you a quick answer. The importance of completing the third step thoroughly is critical to the success of the next three steps.

When a dispute occurs, it's easy to get caught up with the surface issues and not even consider looking beyond them to uncover exactly which unmet needs are driving the conflict into high gear. If the deeper human needs are met, then the surface issues of the conflict won't keep recurring in different ways.

Explore your needs

It's easy to lose touch with what our needs really are. Have you ever felt angry, or just disgruntled, and not been able to express what it was that you needed? As we get older -- and it doesn't matter what our current age is -- our needs keep changing. So it's good to take some time to catch up with ourselves by taking a personal inventory.

Review the needs listed earlier; they'll point you in the right direction. If several needs surface, then rank them in the order of importance. Think about how you'd like to have those needs met. For example, if your conflict was triggered by a deep need for more security, then state in specific terms how that could come about.

Family feuds can get nasty as people waste a great deal of energy and time in attacking each other instead of tackling the problem. All this fighting generates a lot of anger, which becomes a barrier to successful mediation. Let's take a look at how to overcome it.

Slipping under anger

When we peel back the heavy-duty layer of anger, secondary, simmering emotions become visible. These emotions play a vital role in heating up anger. Many significant human needs get buried under an avalanche of powerful emotions, especially anger. When our frustrations over a dispute begin to boil over, and anger leaps onto center stage, it's time to make an exit down through a trap door.

The world underneath represents your subconscious region. Picture this space as being filled with secondary emotions. By selecting one or two of them that describe how you feel about the conflict, you'll create a healthy distance from anger. Figure out which unmet needs have generated these secondary emotions. For example, if you selected the secondary emotion of feeling abandoned, then it could mean that there's an unmet need for acceptance. Elaborate on your unique needs regarding acceptance. By digging a little deeper, you may realize that you also have a need to be taken seriously and thus to be understood better. By weaving these thoughts together, you're creating an in-depth understanding of your dispute. This will lead you towards a solution more quickly than if you had stayed stuck in anger.

The list in the box (below) shows numerous secondary emotions. Say each word to yourself as you weigh it on your emotional scale to see if it registers any connection to an ongoing dispute in your life. Emotional weight is registered by your quiet, inner voice that responds with a heartfelt "YES" after you say a particular word. Check-mark those words.

Explore the emotions you have check-marked by writing about the needs that tie in with them. You may discover some needs that have been suppressed for a long time. Your free-flowing thoughts, written down in journal style, will provide you with rich insights. This kind of soul searching helps to create an accurate goal statement for the mediation meeting.

Thoreau said, "For every thousand people hacking away at the leaves of evil [that is, conflict], there is but one striking at the root." The root in this case is the underlying need. May you uncover the real source of the conflict you face.

The language of mediation

Our words have the power to break or heal a relationship. The manner in which we are to communicate is spelled out in the opening ground rules. These rules promote a productive, problem-solving atmosphere. If there's an angry outburst, then valuable time and energy are wasted because it takes a while to reduce the tension. If you have hired a mediator, why pay for a needless detour away from achieving your goal?

There are many common communication blocks that slow down the mediation process. If your conversation includes position statements, an impasse will occur almost immediately.

Position statements

Position statements begin with words like, "You must never..." or "You will have to..." These are harsh and inflexible statements. The other person will feel put-down and automatically become defensive. In effect, you will have pushed the other party up against your rigid wall. There's not much room for negotiation left here, because you have just destroyed the spirit of collaboration.

A wide variety of interests support every position statement. If you hear a position statement, explore why the other person put it forward by seeking to understand their underlying interests. That approach should get you back on track and prevent you from getting entangled in positional bargaining. Whenever you argue over position statements, you get locked into a battle of wills and quickly end up at a dead-end. Position statements can't be reconciled, but interests can. A variety of interests feed into a position statement, so explore each person's interests.

The more interests you are able to generate, the greater the chance that some of those interests will overlap to form a sizable common ground. You should also examine minor interests that, at first glance, may seem to have no connection to the dispute being mediated.

It's surprising how a minor interest can actually create a path to an innovative solution. I explored minor interests during a mediation that involved the payment of a large debt by a man who was not strong financially. I learned that the debtor had an incredible range of computer programming skills. He had done freelance work for some major clients. It turned out that the other party needed some computer work done, so some phone calls were made to check the work references of the debtor. His reputation as a computer programmer was very good. In the end, a final agreement was drawn up that spelled out the details of the computer work that would be provided for free, in exchange for a reduced amount of the debt.

To blame or not to blame

In Step Two of the mediation process, when the parties are exchanging their views about the dispute, blame has a tendency to sneak in the back door. Many people begin a sentence with the words, "I feel" in order to avoid blaming the other person. It is important to describe the unacceptable action immediately, for example, "I feel angry when I see all those dirty dishes piled up in the sink." In this way you aren't attacking the person but an action. This makes a very big difference to the person listening to you. If they feel you're directing blame at them personally, then their defensive wall goes up, and another communication impasse occurs.

Any statement that begins with, "You make me feel so..." is a blaming statement. You are blaming someone directly for how you feel. Saying, "I feel you are being too controlling" is also a blaming statement. Remember to follow the words 'I feel' with how you personally feel.

For instance, let's look at the example of someone getting blamed for being too controlling. It's a serious shortcoming; one that needs to be addressed. Try to be objective and factual, and describe specific behaviors that are controlling. For example, you could say, "When you make decisions without consulting me, I feel discounted and frustrated because I don't have any input about important issues." Now the facts and feelings are there, and the other person knows exactly what is bothering you.

A nonblaming communication model

Here's a basic communication model that will prevent you from blaming a person directly, but will still make it clear that you'd like to see a change occur. Fill in the blanks with whatever is most appropriate for you.

"When ______________________________ (describe what upsets you), I feel __________________(state your emotion), because _____________________. What I would like from you now is ________ ________________________________. In the future, would it be possible for you to ________________?"

Now I'll fill in the above blanks to illustrate a useful way of issuing a nonblaming statement: "When I receive your unedited newsletter, I feel upset, because it's not my job to act as your editor. What I would like from you now is a response indicating that you understand why I'm upset. (Wait for their response.) In the future, would it be possible for you to do a complete and thorough edit of this newsletter?"

A key principle of mediation is to look for solutions, not blame. In other words, look forward, not backward. There is no use in blaming people because they choose to operate under rules that differ from yours. Appreciate differences because they can work for you. Many business contracts get signed precisely because people have totally opposite beliefs. A buyer of stocks believes the price will go up, and the seller of those very same stocks believes the price will go down. Both walk away from their agreement feeling happy. Make a decision about how to interact with that person whose differing values and beliefs may have hurt you. You have two choices: you can feel like a victim and wallow in self-pity and sympathy from others; or you can turn away from your preoccupation with what others are doing, or not doing, and concentrate instead on having your needs met.

The Tit-for-Tat game

A person can be easily seduced into playing this game, which leads to a communication impasse. The one rule of this game states that you are to treat others in the same way that they have treated you. Many people feel a glorious high after they've 'slammed' someone right back who was rude to them first. Our fighting instinct lures us into this seductive dance.

It's an emotional experience of short-lived satisfaction. To prevent tit-for-tat, keep your mind on the long-term satisfaction of achieving your goal. You could write your goal statement on brightly colored paper and keep it in front of you. It may help deter you from playing this self-defeating game.

During the mediation meeting, be aware of the rate of your verbal exchange. When a situation heats up and becomes emotional, the pace of give and take speeds up. You wouldn't want to quickly blurt out whatever comes to your mind first, especially when in the midst of mediating a business or separation agreement. By taking a break, everyone will have a chance to cool off and slow down. While on your break, try to predict how the other person will respond to what you want to say next. Will their reaction take you closer to your desired outcome or further from it? If necessary, rephrase your thought before speaking.

Collision avoidance

If you can build in a pause between the action and reaction, tit-for-tat won't occur as easily. Here are some ideas for filling in the pause: count to five, leave for a Sixty-Second Break (below, right), make a phone call, or paraphrase what you heard (in your own mind or out loud).

The pause is particularly effective just after someone has 'slammed' you. Don't stoop to responding to a dirty game they want to play. By pausing, you'll diffuse some of their negativity.

Your self-control will translate into self-respect. Become psychologically bullet-proof! Strive to maintain an atmosphere where peace talks can take place by avoiding the communication blocks created by tit-for-tat, positional bargaining, and issuing blame. An open, respectful attitude will promote the exchange of intimate exposures.

Intimate exposures

One reason why a mediation session takes a minimum of two to three hours is that a fair chunk of time is needed for people to lower their defenses and build up their levels of trust so that intimate exposures can occur. Once you've opened up and let the other person in on what your needs and private interests are, then you'll have let yourself be known in a rather intimate way, hence the term "intimate exposures." The exposed picture isn't always pretty, thus some courage is necessary.

Most people won't put their ego into their back pocket very willingly. Consider the number of hours the average person dedicates to polishing their self-image so they can hold it up in a good light. But if you initiate an intimate exposure, you'll have opened the door for the other person to follow. For instance, if you are worried sick and on the brink of bankruptcy, just lay that card on the table. What do you really have to lose? There is a great deal of power in truth. People are touched by it even if they don't show it openly.

We are more alike than different; unfortunately fear and pride get in the way. Don't become a victim of your own pride. By being honest and exposing your underlying needs, you're motivating the other person to join in on the dig for solutions.

Remember Thoreau who said, "Only one in a thousand people will strike at the root" -- the root cause of a dispute being the unmet needs of each person. In the rush of daily living, we tend to settle for quick fixes all too often. If you ignore the root and rush forward with the excuse that you have more important matters to attend to, then that buried root will spring up and over time shoot forth even more problems.

Here's a question that will begin the process of digging down to unearth your needs. What would you do if you were guaranteed success? In other words, whatever you decide to do, you would achieve the results that you only dare to dream about. What would you do?

By delving into our deepest desires and needs, certain truths and values emerge. I have asked this question countless times, and the vast majority of answers tie in directly with relationship issues. The desire to travel or buy a new house always comes second. Above all else, people long for good relationships.

What would you do if you were guaranteed success? Whatever your answer to this question may be, turn it into a goal statement. I started this article by saying if you don't know what you want, there's a very good chance you'll never get it. So take an inventory of your needs. Dig deeply! After you discover your unmet needs, a goal statement will surface. Life is a precious gift! Let's honor each other's needs.

This article has been edited and excerpted from Settle It! by Karin Vagiste (Sterling House, 2000). A distinguished mediator and speaker, Vagiste offers an "Action Plan" to enable you to resolve the disputes that block you from achieving your goals. (There's also a "Simplified Action Plan" for children under 12, enabling you and your kids to work out problems and make decisions in a collaborative fashion.) Her methods allow you to keep your dignity and self-respect intact while working towards a satisfactory resolution -- good news for those hoping to reduce or eliminate the bitterness and battles of divorce. Available on-line and at retail bookstores across North America, or by calling: (800) 565-9523. Karin Vagiste can be reached at

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June 09, 2006
Categories:  Legal Issues

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