Begin with an error of one inch and you will end a thousand miles off course
As a sometime weekend sailor I can testify to the truth of this proverb. However, in family mediation when I see parents who are child focused and struggling with the enormity of the challenge ahead, I find this proverb comforting.
The converse of this proverb means that, if an inch can throw you a thousand miles off course, the adjustment of an inch now can make an incredible difference to the outcome years in the future.
No-one can reasonably expect parents who are separating to co-parent harmoniously and co-operatively from Day 1. It is unhelpful and misleading to give parents false expectations that they can turn from ex-partners to collaborative co-parents overnight. This type of transition takes work. This proverb highlights that even small changes can lead to big results for children.
It may feel like a small thing that a handover was done courteously and without an argument. It is not. From these small steps, co-parents can rebuild respect and trust as co-parents. In family mediation, we work with parents to construct this new paradigm of how they will move forward as co-parents.
The most important step?, as always the first one.
Record your injuries in dust and your benefits in marble
The human brain is a wonder. One of the downsides of our human brains is that we are hard wired to focus on the negative and to focus on loss. It is understandable. In the days when we had to fight for survival, we needed to focus on things that were dangerous or worrying. You might enjoy the warmth of the sun after a long winter but it wasn’t going to mean the difference between life and death.
This inherent bias now serves us poorly when we are in conflict. We focus on the losses to the exclusion of gains. In MRIs, our brains light up like Vegas when we feel that we have lost something, even if that loss is illusory. We struggle to let things go and recite endlessly the wrongs we have suffered. While this may be justified, it makes for a poor negotiation strategy.
I have seen people in mediation argue passionately for a specific outcome and then when the other side agrees, they move to the next outcome they desire. We need to take a moment and enjoy the win. We need to pause and express gratitude for the agreement.
People often say, “why should I say thank you, this is what I am entitled to”. The reason is simple, because you are in a negotiation. In negotiation, you need to give to get. If you want to get something, this is easier if you can acknowledge the other person. The chances are that they do not want to give up this outcome, but they are willing to do so for another more important outcome to them. Or, the mediator in me believes they may have listened to the underlying interests and be trying to meet them. Either way, whether this is a strategic move or a genuine intention, acknowledgement of the win, leads to better outcomes.
When elephants battle the ants become victims
In any battle there will always be non-combatants who may be harmed by the war. In family mediation, it is usually easy to see who is bearing the brunt of the collateral damage, the children.
It can be difficult when a parent is engaged in what can feel like an existential fight to have capacity to focus on their children. The original choice to have children with the now ex-partner is long-forgotten. Instead, all of the negatives regarding the adult relationship and every fault as a parent are thrown into high relief.
The truth is that there are no perfect parents. The truth is that at some stage these parents decided to have children together. The truth is that the hurt and pain experienced as an ex-partner, needs to be put aside in order to facilitate a relationship of co-parenting for the benefit of the children. The truth is that no-one wants to hear this.
As a family mediator, I have an ethical duty to assist parents to keep their children’s best interests in focus. Using psycho-social education and research, there are ways for parents to find a path through the chaos to enable their children to survive and thrive the family’s transition through a parental separation.
You do not stumble over a mountain but you do over a stone
There is a point in some negotiations when a party will decide that this is the hill on which they will fight the final battle. They may have reached agreement on a myriad of issues but this one is “a principle” or “so unjust” that they are willing to walk away from the whole agreement if they do not get what they want on this one issue.
Often these parties have worked extremely hard and are at the end of their energy and endurance. It is critical at this stage for parties to take a moment and consider the entirety of the negotiation. It is helpful for parties to remember:
For me, this proverb rings true when I see parties who have overcome significant challenges and have climbed the mountain, only to trip over a stone in the path. Staying focused at this stage can help parties to keep sight of their goals and to side step that last stone.
I have had the unusual pleasure as a family mediator of working with some couples who wish to try reconciliation. Family mediators will tell you that these cases are unusual and that often people do not survive the crisis which brought them to mediation. However, from my perspective, I always feel honoured to work with people to try and design a roadmap for reconciliation.
For some couples, a crisis has precipitated the decision to come to mediation. For most people by the time we are sitting in mediation, it is too late to reconcile. Too much has happened and without knowing it the parties have crossed a line in their relationship. Even in these cases, one party may wish to reconcile. However, for reconciliation to work, both parties must be committed to the process.
For other couples, both people feel a great deal of ambivalence. A crisis may have occurred but there are reasons which make them want to try to save the relationship. This book, "Should I stay or should I go?" provides a potential way out of that dilemma.
Raffel suggests that parties need to respond to the crisis, which he sees as a "call to action". He suggests a controlled separation gives both parties time and space to heal and to work on the reconciliation.
To work towards reconciliation, the parties will need to work with a counsellor to address the relationship issues which led to the crisis. However, in mediation I can work with people to create a roadmap for reconciliation. We can work on the practical issues:
In family separation, people need containment for the chaos that may be unfolding for them and, hope to see a path forward. For many people, separation exposes them to a range of negative emotions which can strip them of a sense of agency and of their future. As a family mediator, it is typical to meet with people for whom trust, faith and shared futures are gone. People can remain mired in the past and blame, and this can lead to a sense of cynicism and a strong sense of disempowerment.
If there are children then it is in their best interests that their parents find a way to function effectively as co-parents. This can be extremely challenging at a time when parents wish to separate their lives, their duties as parents compel them to communicate and interact.
One way to help parents is through the concept of hope. Hope can provide the motivation for parties to try and choose a different path forward. Used appropriately hope can provide people with the ability to make an effort, to choose to move forward and to allow themselves to reimagine the future.
Some have seen hope as a negative as it can be deceptive and may encourage delusional expectations. This can be a risk in some cases, where co-operation is interpreted as providing hope for reconciliation. In family mediation, we need to ensure that hope is not creating ‘false’ hope.
Instead a family mediator can work with the parents to use hope as a transformative tool to enable them to move forward. J.R.R. Tolkein compared hope to a fairy-tale, however he also saw that hope has the virtue of allowing us to change and adapt. Without the hope of change and a better path forward many families would remain mired in conflict and negative intimacy. Hope remains a powerful tool in the mediator’s toolbox.
Are hope and despair two sides of the same coin? Michael Schreiner commented that they are two sides of the expectations coin. Both hope and despair are focused on a set of future and unknown circumstances. Schreiner describes them as an educated guess about what will happen. He argues that hope is despair in disguise as if it is not supported by circumstances then the coin will flip and it will be replaced with despair.
Hope can also be seen as delusional. It can be seen as a form of self-deception. Rather than facing up to the realities of a situation, hope may make someone ‘hope’ for the best. This line of thought argues that hope may prolong suffering as rather than take responsibility for making changes, someone may hope for the solution to appear. In addition, rather than accepting a negative reality they may deceive themselves.
Hope may be seen as preventing us from preparing for the worst. If we cling to hope rather than prepare and take action we may be overwhelmed when positive expectations are not met and negative realities occur. This is a special type of magical thinking. A belief that we do not need to anticipate or prepare for negative consequences as can just cling to hope that things will be better.
Hope can be seen as an abdication of our personal responsibility to solve problems for ourselves. If we hope that the ‘deus ex machina’ will arrive and save the day we may cease our own efforts. if we maintain a false hope that a solution will come we may cease to work on our own solutions.
Whilst I acknowledge these challenges, I reject these characterisations. From my perspective, hope is an attempt to navigate an unknown future. I applaud the parties in mediation who have the courage to hope that they can make a better reality than the one they have inhabited. Without doubt it takes courage to choose hope when bitterness and disillusionment beckon from the present and the past. As a problem solver I am interested in what works. Does it help for parties to despair? Does it help for them to remain mired in blame?
In mediation, I see people who have no reason to trust, deciding to make that leap so that they can motivate themselves to move forward. Choosing hope is an acknowledgement that the alternative to hope is a never-ending battle. It is a defiant statement that empowers people to create structures and plans for tomorrow.
For the next few weeks, I will focus on different aspects of Hope. From my perspective as a mediator:
And now for my favourite animal in real life and in the Chinese zodiac, the Dog. I have written previously about what dogs can teach us about conflict. Every day, my dogs teach me more life lessons, many of which involve the importance of access to treats and how to bark at wild boars.
In the Chinese zodiac, Dogs are well known for their loyalty. It is a defining feature. Loyalty may seem to be an unusual quality to look for in conflict, however, it has a role to play. In family mediation, trust and loyalty are gone. However, they still have a place if there are children. If there are children, then the former partners will continue to be co-parents.
This continuing co-parenting relationship demands connection at a time when many people wish the other person would disappear. As a family mediator in Hong Kong, I have an ethical duty to assist parents to focus on their children’s best interests. Research would tell us that ongoing conflict has the most negative impact on children.
As parties are dissolving their adult relationship, it is difficult to remember that the other person remains a co-parent and should remain a team-mate. Whilst your former partner may no longer deserve your loyalty as a partner, they may need to receive your loyalty as a co-parent, for the benefit of your children. I remember listening in a child inclusive mediation as a child consultant brought messages from their children. The children had specifically requested that their parents could be “a team”. Even though the children understood that their parents were separating, they still wanted to be parented by both of their parents. The children wanted to know that they had a team of adults looking after their needs and caring for them. Team-mates have loyalty for one another because they have a higher goal that they are seeking to achieve. Team-mates have loyalty for one another because they are focused on something other than their own feelings. Loyalty can have a place in conflict.
The International Survey of Family Law 2018 is about to launch. I was honoured to contribute the Hong Kong chapter. The Hong Kong chapter looks at challenges for families and practitioners arising from the lack of innovation in our legislation. This has necessitated invention by judges, lawyers and mediators.
The Survey is the annual review of the International Society of Family Law. This year's survey contains chapters covering topical issues ranging from legislation to customary law to reproductive technology.
Copies are available for purchase from Intersentia.