When Each Party Is the Expert on the Other’s Reality

People in conflict who have been in a relationship often feel as if they know a great deal about the other person – the expert on the other’s reality.  They come to mediation with that set strongly in mind.  They can make righteous statements based on their sense of the reality which offend the other person.   And their take on the other person’s reality can lead them to blame or accuse the other in a way which interferes with effective communication.  Once one party starts to talk this way towards the other, this can trigger a reaction, and then they are off and running, usually in the wrong direction.

The mediator’s job is to try to help unravel this tangle by refocusing the parties on their individual realities, which are often challenging enough for them to be able to grasp and articulate in a period of great transition.  This is much easier to say than to do because it is often easier for people to focus outside themselves than to take stock of where they are and what is important to them in their own lives going forward.  It is important to first be able to help people recognize that neither of their perceptions are “The Reality” and that there are at least two different subjective realities and perceptions when they disagree with each other, neither of which represent “The Reality.”  For the mediator to be able to do that requires the mediator not to have chosen which perceptions are more true or closer to “The Reality”.

For example, in a family case involving a contentious issue of support, one person may accuse the other of not making sufficient efforts to become employed, continuing a pattern of laziness and reliance on the other to carry the financial burden.   The other may accuse the working spouse of undermining their self confidence and failing to support their efforts as they repeatedly did in the past and trying to escape their responsibility to assist financially.

One specific intervention is to ask the parties to agree on a groundrule where they each speak for themselves rather than the other.  The mediator can also give each person the opportunity to describe his or her reality and then reflect back and frame each person’s statement as their own subjective reality.  By turning the parties to themselves, the mediator is able to help the supported spouse to identify and articulate the experience of helplessness in being financially dependent and the fear of being unable to find suitable employment.  The mediator is also able to help the supporting spouse to identify and articulate anxiety and fears about financial security and the ability to meet everyone’s needs in a time of financial crisis.

The mediator interventions which helped the parties to let go of “The Reality” began with helping them recognize they were in a period of transition when things were changing, not just for each person, but for the other as well.  When the parties were able to recognize that they were undergoing changes themselves, it was easier to accept that it might be true for the other person as well.