Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. That’s true in life and it’s true when we sit in the mediator’s chair.
I remember when I took my first mediation training in 1990 that the trainer made a big point that when you want the people to leave, get up and stand by the door. I don’t know why this made a big impression on me but it is one of the only things I can recall about that training. For years I wondered when I (or anyone for that matter) might actually want to get the people to leave so badly that I would get up and stand by the door. And then one day a couple of years ago, it happened.
I was mediating a family case. The wife was very quiet and came from a culture where women are historically submissive. The husband came from a more assertive background and could be quite bullying in his behavior. To be fair, the wife was often provocative in a passive (aggressive) manner but the husband often became aggressive and very difficult to work with. We went through a couple of sessions making slow progress then maybe in their fifth mediation session things came to a head. They were arguing about support for their teenage son who had taken the mother’s side and was not speaking to the father even though the family was still living together under one roof. The father did not want to pay support for this son either to the mother or directly to the boy himself and was becoming belligerent. The mother needed help with the child’s expenses.
I listened to both sides. I looped. I worked on understanding each other’s views. Dad just got louder and angrier and Mom receded deeper into my chair. I asked if this approach was working for them. They agreed it wasn’t, we recontracted and nothing changed.
It was time . . . I got up and stood by the door. They looked at me. I said, “This isn’t working. I think you should leave.” The Husband said, “What, you’re kicking us out?” I said, “Yes, you’re not listening to each other. There’s nothing I can do to help you. Please leave.”
[Let me say that this was not easy for me. My heart was pounding. I could barely believe my own gall and yet I truly felt this was the right thing to do.]
The husband was so taken aback, his attitude changed immediately and that was all it took for them to reach a settlement after another full session. I was relieved the day they signed their papers but the story doesn’t end there.
A couple of years later, I was coming home from a meeting in the City at lunch time. I bought myself some lunch and got on the train a few minutes early in order to eat it. As I walked into the train car, I passed the husband. We greeted each other and I moved past. On the outside, I was cool as a cucumber. On the inside, all that angst was roiling up. I sat down and got out my lunch and began to eat. I looked up and here he comes up the aisle toward my seat. He stopped and said, “I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ You really helped us a lot.” I asked after his family and he told me everyone was doing well and then after a few additional pleasantries, he returned to his seat. My heart was still pounding but it was a lovely closure to have.