A client, Steve*, came to see me after learning of his first wife’s infidelity. He sat across from me visibly angry. He wanted to “leave this relationship with the same monies he had when he entered into it.”
He wanted her to pay all the legal fees for the divorce. The clock was ticking fast, as his mediation was only three weeks away, and he could only attend “Therapy Time” once a week. Steve benefited from the insights and emotional lessons learned in therapy. He felt better prepared as he and his soon-to-be ex-wife began mediation.
In only two meetings and a double session, Steve described growing up as the oldest of three in the middle of a custody battle that rivaled the iconic nighttime television drama of the ‘80s, Dallas. With my guidance, he identified how enraged he felt as a child by his parents’ selfishness, as they made a hobby out of using their children as pawns to hurt each other.
It was that same selfishness in his wife who’d cheated and betrayed him that infuriated him now as a husband. With that revelation, I could therapeutically map out the pitfalls and triggers that Steve might encounter during mediation. Armed with this expectation, Steve could acknowledge his ex-wife’s selfishness, and instead of dwelling on the pain, he could cut his losses and move on.
Steve made his deadline and was better prepared emotionally when he faced his ex-wife at the mediation table.
Therapy patients often find themselves at an advantage during the mediation process. According to the New York City Commission of Human Rights, the goal of mediation is to let go of prior hostilities and come to an agreement that will work for all sides moving forward.
Often, people entering into mediation are feeling hurt and betrayed and angry and a host of other emotions that can easily morph into landmines during mediation. When feelings are running beyond raw, it makes the process heated and treacherous for all involved, unless the parties can come to some baseline level of mutual acceptance. That’s where therapy comes in.
Therapy provides an opportunity for a person to work through the topics that feel the riskiest.
Within sessions, the underlying and unresolved issues that are connected to a former partner can be thoroughly identified, objectively discussed, and emotionally processed.
As a result, the patient will be able to communicate concretely and productively during the mediation process. With more understanding about their situation and the limitations of their former partner, they can let go of their anger and resentment and more easily achieve an agreement with their ex about property, other resources and, in some cases, custody.
As the patient is participating in divorce therapy sessions, he is actually preparing for mediation, but that’s just one part of the equation. Mediators can also benefit from learning the same therapy tools I use to help patients every day.
4 Therapy Tools During Mediation: How and Why They Work
1. Rapport Building
All therapy begins with the first tool: rapport building. From the moment a therapist greets a client in the waiting room, calling them by name and making eye contact, they are employing rapport building. As the therapist directs the client to sit down in their office, they are observing their client and making subtle adjustments in their therapy approach.
Some clients feel more at ease after making small talk; they may opt to comment on the recent weather change, sports team score, or even office decor. Some say nothing, possibly counting the seconds until they are seated, and the door is securely closed, so they can then fall apart and let the tears flow. Some get angry, their fists tighten and motion in the air.
The therapist will build rapport by following their client’s lead. With active listening and unconditional positive regard—two famous therapeutic tools created by Carl Rogers—the therapist’s body language, eye contact, and words will all work in tandem to relay the message to the client that what he has to say is important and in essence, so is he. For example, Steve began our first session by describing how his wife rooted against his favorite team, regardless of the sport, because she resented the time and attention his fan activities took away from their time together. She said football, in particular, had an ability to hijack his personality.
When Steve shared a recurring joke he told himself about being able to enjoy the next football season because of his wife’s infidelity, I joked and laughed along with him. Humor bonded us, so he felt more comfortable as opposed to being under evaluation all the time by a mental health professional. Once the therapist or mediator has established rapport, there is a genuine connection, and it’s easier to break through a client’s emotional defenses.
The second therapy tool, validation, plays a critical role in therapy and mediation. In mediation, both parties want to feel like their side has been heard and considered fairly before they can begin seriously discussing terms for an agreement. Therapy provides a clear framework for validating a client that mediators can use: parrot back to the client what you heard him say, and add your own interpretation, along with a question as to whether you got it right.
This communicates that the client is in charge, and they get to decide if you have the right interpretation of their story. In working with Steve, I used validation to support his newfound awareness of how much he hated selfishness. I said that I imaged him as a good friend, a good neighbor. The kind of guy who, if you took his mail in while he was away, would insist on bringing over a bottle of wine or box of tea, or somehow saying thanks. Validating both clients’ viewpoints can help ease tensions so that they are ready to come to the mediating table.
3. Recognizing Core Needs and Establishing Goals
Here is where therapy parallels mediation the most—helping the patient to figure out what they really want and to set clear goals to achieve it. To this end, a therapist may challenge the purpose initially presented by the client, just as a mediator may explore the meaning behind a specific agreement or proposal. In both therapy and mediation, it’s important to explore the client’s core needs, such as feeling less insecure at social venues, making changes to their company structure, or being able to have more family time.
However, it’s vital to agree on a destination—often a divorce or other arrangement that keeps things amicable—while making sure the assets are divided to both parties’ satisfaction.
Let’s take my client, Maggie*, an accountant in private practice who wound up in divorce mediation with her husband, Dan*. Maggie started our initial session by saying verbatim that she admits to still being in love with her soon-to-be ex-husband, Dan. With further exploration, I realized that the divide between the couple was about a difference in agendas and lifestyle needs. Dan was ready to build the family that Maggie once said she wanted.
Since they were unable to conceive, and Dan had gone through every medical test possible, he became adamant about adoption. Maggie wanted no part of this. Mediation was postponed, and Maggie managed to attend therapy weekly. When Maggie and Dan sat down at the mediation table, Maggie no longer felt the old weight of guilt that she was carrying. She took the opportunity to explain to Dan that she was not ready for children and family life, and, in fact, her complaints about him were more about her own inner conflict between what they, together, originally set out to create and what she wanted now.
Maggie gained 10 pounds during the course of therapy and realized she had gotten into old anorexic behavior to prevent herself from being able to conceive.
Mediation was a healthier experience for Maggie and Dan after therapy because much of their main conflict could be understood and worked through after it was identified in therapy. After acknowledging that, despite what she and Dan had discussed in the past, she didn’t want a family at this point in her life and career, Maggie was able to state her desire to Dan and others involved. The tools she learned in therapy helped Maggie achieve her overarching goal, take steps towards what she authentically wanted and make her actions match her true desires.
4. Cognitive Reframing
Cognitive reframing, created by Martin Seligman, is one of the greatest tools in the therapist’s toolbox. It consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Think of it as taking an average oil painting that a loved one gave you to hang in your dining room because they painted it just for you. If you take the so-so painting out of its frame and reframe it with a frame that is visually superior, the overall painting will look better.
In therapy and mediation, the oil painting may be agreeing to see disgruntled ex-in-laws every time it’s custody week or having to part with economic resources coveted during years of sacrifice and hard work. That is the painting. The metaphorical painting was a given, not chosen by you. The frame is chosen. For example, seeing ex-in-laws becomes doing the right thing for your child, so they feel as though there is continuity in the family. In this case, parting with other resources becomes a pathway to freedom.
For Maggie, we used cognitive reframing by taking her dismal thoughts about her years spent with Dan and changing them from “wasted years” and “throwaway time” to real-life lessons that gave her the experience needed to become the person she is today and to become aware of how to honor her true life choices, even when they don’t match the choices of those around her.
At the end of the day, therapy and mediation are complementary. The standard therapy tools of rapport building, validation, recognizing core needs and establishing goals, and cognitive reframing can also be an important part of the mediation process. Because therapy is largely about working through the difficult emotions that arise from conflict, therapy is an ideal primer for mediation and can assist in smoothing out the actual in vivo process. Mediators who embrace these therapy tools will find that mediation becomes a more effective process.