On July 19-20, I was one of three trainers who gave a workshop on Power Imbalance in Family Mediation for the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM). Hilary Linton and Claudette Reimer both run mediation programs in the Toronto area and they presented their methods for screening for power imbalance (especially for domestic violence) in individual intake interviews before meeting jointly with the parties. This stimulated a lot of discussion of three questions: 1) whether such intake interviews are really necessary in all family mediation cases; 2) if the mediation proceeds, how to conduct it safely; and 3) how to conduct family mediations in terms of high conflict personalities (the part I focused on).
The first question was addressed by Hilary and Claudette presenting information about the percentage of family mediation cases in which there is a history of domestic violence. Hilary said that research shows that it’s present in about 50% of our separation and divorce mediation cases. I offered my belief that it is present in only about 20% of family mediation cases and that not all allegations of domestic violence are true. However, they convinced me at a similar training last year for APFM that there is a need to screen cases, regardless of the percentage, because of the severe consequences when there is violence or even death following mediation (and they gave a few examples which have occurred in the past few years).
Yet they then explained why research now supports the fact that mediation is better and safer than court for such cases and that they actually screen out very few domestic violence cases – instead they focus on how to make them safe in mediation. I explained how I have decided to screen cases within the context of Pre-Mediation Coaching, so that I combine teaching skills they will use during the mediation with checking to see that mediation is appropriate and safe.
Hilary and Claudette then addressed the second question above by explaining measures for making mediation safe, with cues for people to give if they start feeling unsafe, with separate arrival and leaving times, and many other measures. One point they emphasized is that the individual intake interviews provide an opportunity to discuss what can make mediation safe for both parties. They pointed out that supporting abusers in mediation as well as victim/survivors makes it more peaceful for both parties during and after the mediation. This approach contrasts with court, which tends to escalate defensiveness and conflict, with more risk of abuse after a hearing. They reported that most clients tell them that they prefer mediation and are relieved when it calms down their conflicts, with both parties being treated with respect as well as knowing that they are taking protection issues seriously.
I then focused on the third question, which was how to adapt the mediation process for high conflict personalities, which includes those with a history of domestic violence as well as those without such a history. My emphasis was on calming the parties with lots of empathy, attention and respect for both of their concerns; then really engaging them in problem-solving, by teaching them how to make proposals, how to ask questions of me and the other party, and how to respond by simply saying “Yes,” “No” or “I’ll think about it.”
This structured approach helps the parties feel less defensive, as the focus is on the future rather than their past behavior, conflicts and problems. It is a totally positive approach, focusing the discussions on future choices and possible consequences of those choices, and emphasizing that all of the decisions are up to the parties in mediation. This avoids power struggles with the parties over reaching an agreement that is directed too much by mediator. Experience shows that high conflict people will reject anyone else’s terms of agreement, unless they have meaningfully participated in developing the terms of the agreement themselves.
The training participants were from several states and all really experienced. We were very impressed with their willingness to practice doing screening interviews and working on areas that “pushed them past their comfort zones,” as Claudette liked to say. I learned a lot and really enjoyed working with everyone present!
For those interested in learning more about these screening and mediation methods, see the program for the APFM annual conference on October 16-19, 2014 at www.APFMnet.org.
Bill Eddy is a family mediator, family lawyer and family therapist, who has been providing divorce mediation services for over 30 years. He is a Founding Board Member of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators. His website is www.HighConflictInstitute.com.