Colleagues and clients have sometimes asked me if I do mediation. Or if I consider myself a mediator. Early in my post-graduate training in Family Systems and Couples Therapy, I observed the now deceased mediation pioneer, John Haynes, conduct a live interview. I, along with other trainees, watched his mediation meeting behind what is called “a one-way mirror.” This was my first time observing mediation live and I remember thinking how similar his work seemed to the work I was learning to do.
I distinctly remember watching Haynes intentionally place himself in the mediation conversation as a neutral professional. As a couples therapist then and now, and whether I am helping couples reconcile or divorce, I am doing the same thing. Any skilled mediator or couples therapist needs to be experienced by the party (aka the couple) as if he is on everyone’s side and no ones side at the same time. At one point, I watched John challenge one party during his interview and then later make sure to challenge the other. By the end of his meeting, both partners seemed to leave feeling equally supported and challenged by him. This is good mediation and this is also good couples therapy.
I also remember John meeting with the parties together and apart. Though less common, productive couples therapy is also sometimes conducted in this way. There are times when a person’s behavior needs to be confronted or explored. Doing so in front of their spouse however can feel shaming to the individual and can create a defensive response. Alone, this person can be more open to receiving the feedback, specially, if it is delivered by a mediator or a couples therapist in a skillful and disarming way. Moving back and forth between the parties-together and individually-is part of the scaffolding of successful mediation and couples therapy.
I watched John early in his interview establish goals for his mediation. He also set an agenda for the meeting I was observing. Expert couples work needs to do the same. Within the 1st few meetings, I too will have developed goals with the couple that are as specific and tangible as possible. “Communicating better” is fine yet it is not specific enough. Assisting a couple to describe what this would look like is better. Two such examples might be, “I would say something and feel like he is listening and understands me,” or “she would speak with me, not at me.” Alternatively, “we would love each other more” is not specific enough. “I would wake up and want to hug my spouse,” or “I would want to have sex with him” is better.
Likewise, any couples therapy that does not have a session-by-session agenda (that also leaves room for spontaneity) is sloppy couples therapy. It was immediately apparent to me that John Haynes would not allow his mediation sessions to organically unfold. This would leave too much room for the meetings to potentially spin out of control, and for parties to go off on tangents or impulsively say hurtful or counterproductive things. At the beginning of each session, I am careful to ask my client-couples, “what do you want to work on today?” And in the spirit of neutrality I make sure to ask both partners the same question. We spend a bit of time prioritizing our items for discussion and I make sure we all understand what specifically we are working towards.
Mediation and Couples Therapy are similar processes. The skill set of each largely overlap. They are both short-term in nature and goal directed. They are spontaneous and yet carefully choreographed. Couples therapy is often about mediating discussions between couples where they can come to shared new understandings and agreements. They are similar and perhaps different at the same time.