By Catherine Conner and Katherine Miller

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Often, the parties in conflict are not the sole stakeholders in the dispute. External forces—ranging from family and friends, consulting attorneys, accountants, therapists, among others—can insert themselves into the conflict resolution process, invited or not. These external forces can have a supportive and positive presence in the process;however, they can also be toxic and sabotaging inroads to resolution. For conflict resolution professionals, versatility in dealing with these external forces can be a crucial factor in the process.  Clarifying the roles of these participants during the contracting process encourages opportunities for constructive engagement of parties who may lack the necessary holistic context of the conflict.

Concerned that disagreements over their joint finances are threatening their marriage, newlyweds Fatima and Martina sought a mediator to support resolution of the conflict before their disagreement leads to divorce. While the couple have already structured the process with their mediator, external forces have started to enter into their dispute, and are causing turmoil in the early stages of the conflict resolution process.

Fatima’s older sister, Nour, has been staying with the couple since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. During her extended visit, Nour witnessed a particularly emotional dispute between Fatima and Martina. She is concerned about how Martina’s dominant personality results in constant criticism of Fatima’s spending despite her higher earnings. Like Fatima, Nour is also a high-income earner. Just prior to her visit, Nour had finalized a particularly painful divorce from a husband who was similar to Martina. She had never been particularly fond of Martina, and after witnessing the couple’s turmoil, is certain that Martina is taking advantage of Fatima. Since the last mediation session, Nour has been trying to convince Fatima to leave Martina and has been a combative presence in the household.

Exasperated with the constant attacks from her sister-in-law, Martina has confided in her father, Tomas, about her marital problems. Tomas is aware of his daughter’s parsimonious habits. He had worked hard to instill frugality in Martina in the wake of his wife and her mother’s terminal cancer that ultimately not only took her life, but also robbed them of financial security. While they had once been a strong middle-class family, Tomas now lives with significant medical debt that he will never be able to repay. While he loves Fatima deeply, Tomas thinks that his daughter-in-law has a penchant for frivolity. He has significant concern over the couple’s stability should they also face an unforeseen and life-altering financial burden, although he has tried to keep this opinion to himself. Tomas has been patiently trying to help Fatima understand that maintaining her lifestyle could lead to ruin, even if their finances are stable presently. While Fatima has appreciated his advice in the past, with Nour now in the picture, she has retreated and become less receptive to his guidance.

When Fatima and Martina arrive for their second mediation appointment, the mediator is surprised to find both Nour and Tomas in tow. Within moments of their arrival, Tomas begins to implore Fatima to reconsider her spending habits, which leads to Nour aggressively telling him that he has no place commenting on her sister’s affairs, which in turn results in Martina yelling at Nour. In the midst of the chaos, the mediator realizes that these external forces must be addressed, or Fatima and Martina will never find reconciliation.

Pain, embarrassment, and violations of dignity are often challenging components of conflict for all involved, including the mediator. Parties in conflict may not have the ego strength to feel like they can talk to their family members, such as Fatima, whose passive nature is perpetually overrun by her sister and her partner. While Nour is advocating for her sister, she is not the key to resolution. The same is true for Tomas, who also does not hold the key to resolution either even with his good intentions. Only Fatima and Martina know what will work best for themselves and each must arrive at a place of understanding with her partner.

Nour and Tomas represent the informal social systems helping the parties in conflict. This support system is not necessarily always family, it can include friends who have been through similar conflict or friends who have replaced the support system of family. There is also a professional support system, such as consulting lawyers, accountants or financial planners, and other consultants brought into the process by  the parties and conflict professional. Professionals can also intentionally or unintentionally interfere with the parties’ process.  An accountant engaged in the mediation process may want to share charts and graphs, thinking this is helpful, but in reality, it could  exacerbate the problem or distract from a deeper issue at hand.

Fatima and Martina’s situation demonstrates how these overlapping circles of people who are trying to have a conversation with the parties about their needs could further destabilize precarious—even volatile—environments. However, many people, like Nour and Tomas, are coming from a place of concern, wanting the best outcome for those that they love and they can be a source of support. They are also serving the needs of Fatima and Martina. Family and friends can sometimes be a countervailing force. They can give a person in conflict the courage to speak up and say that a proposed solution does not include something essential. They may also be a source of creative ideas when the parties themselves are too overwhelmed to conceive. 

The mediator can help manage these back-seat drivers to keep them in a constructive and supportive role and manage the intrusions. This role is particularly important when one or more of the parties in conflict are feeling stuck and they may not have the wherewithal to manage the external commentary themselves. 

Parties in conflict do not exist in a vacuum, and for the mediator, having a greater context of the outside forces serving—or not serving—the parties in conflict is a pivotal step in moving forward. Mediators should look at a party’s support network, their structure, the interwoven circles around them, and how they are helpful and unhelpful. Who is there? How are parties using their external support network and what role do those people play in the conflict? Is the “external team” helpful or not? How can the helpful elements be strengthened and transformed into effective support? How and when are the external forces brought in to create forward motion instead of creating doubt or suspicion? Asking these questions and contracting about the role and place of external forces can increase the likelihood of a positive impact throughout the mediation process.

It is also worth noting that doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Fatima has been a pushover her whole life and although Nour may be dominating, she is doing so on behalf of her sister. When Martina proposes a potential solution to Fatima, Fatima may not have the confidence to say no. By exploring and understanding how the external force is useful, the mediator can help the parties determine the best way to engage them in the process by exploring and understanding how the external force is useful. Engaging Nour as an advocate for her sister in an agreed upon process may provide a window for Fatima to speak up against proposals that she does not feel will suit her. When these situations arise in mediation, creating the protection in a supportive, rather than destructive way, can yield positive results.

The external forces for Fatima and Martina appeared early enough in the process that they could be incorporated into the initial contracting process but without proactive exploration, mediators may not find out about personal external forces until later in the process. Asking early on about external forces to identify and explore the context allows the mediator to bring catalyzing players to the forefront at a stage when they can be engaged to more effectively support the conflict resolution process. There is often a long history leading up to the presenting dispute and without this early exploration of the impact of external forces, what may start as an individual conflict can grow into a group conflict, as shown when Nour, Tomas, and Martina began arguing with one another during the second mediation meeting.

Professional external forces also need to be addressed. Sometimes, the other professionals involved in the mediation process are known and actively engaged. The scope and manner of their participation should be part of the contracting process and the mediator can assist in clarifying how they will be most useful to the parties. Sometimes, however, the professionals are influencing from outside the room and the parties often do not understand that they—the parties—have the  power to tell the professional what they need. It is not uncommon to see cases go off track when the party does not have the tools to talk through an issue with their professional team.  The mediator can coach parties to ask for what they need from their consulting professionals.

Ultimately, mediators are well served when they have  a wider context of who is involved and the dynamics of that involvement, in and outside the mediation room. The key takeaway is that conflict resolution professionals can support their clients in establishing spaces to help their allies support them more effectively, instead of dominating the process. The earlier that these forces are identified, the better the chances that they will not upend the conflict resolution process but rather be a positive force.