Mediation: The Promise of the Promise

By Laura Melton Tucker, May 30th, 2011

Listen to this entry.

Today I share one of my favorite mediation stories about clients whose success still makes me smile.  Theirs is an example of why mediation is the optimal way to resolve problems.  First the story, followed by the takeaway.

As a mediator, I rarely hear details about a conflict over the telephone before I meet clients. I prefer this “blind” approach because I enter mediations without preconceived notions.  Furthermore, I don’t want either party to feel like I’ve listened to complaints or judgments behind the other’s back.  Keeping the pre-mediation conversation to a minimum helps me maintain both real and perceived neutrality.   In the case of Jack and Marcy,* however, I noted special stress around the scheduling of the appointment.  Usually one person contacts me and lets the other know to call me, too.   Once I’ve heard from both parties, we set up an appointment.  Jack couldn’t do this because he didn’t have Marcy’s phone number.   In fact, he called hoping that Marcy had called first, since my name was listed on their court paperwork. When I told him she hadn’t, he answered, “Please give me a call if you hear from her.  I don’t have a car, and I don’t have much money, but whenever she wants to meet, let me know and I’ll be there.”  I made Jack’s day when I called him a few weeks later and told him Marcy called and agreed to mediate.

On the day of the mediation, Jack and Marcy made little eye contact when Marcy arrived a few minutes late and took a seat across from Jack.   After paperwork and my brief introduction, I asked who would like to start. Jack spoke first.  Moving forward in his seat, with his hands folded gently on his lap, he said quietly, “I’d like to start by saying I’m sorry.  Marcy, please forgive me.  Forgive me for being out of touch these last five years.  I’ve tried to contact you but your family wouldn’t give me your number.  Forgive me for acting irresponsibly and getting arrested just two weeks before our baby was born. Forgive me for leaving you to raise the baby by yourself, which I know hasn’t been easy.  Forgive me for screwing everything up and making it necessary to meet this way.  I want to make it up to our daughter.  I’m not asking you to let me off the hook, I’m just asking you for a chance to get to know our child.”

I doubt that a courtroom or even an attorney’s office would have provided Jack with the same opportunity to speak these words to Marcy.  Nor would Marcy, in either of those situations, have felt as free to respond.  She expressed feelings of hurt and anger, described the hardship she’d endured on her own, and amazingly, after a while, showed Jack a picture of their five year old child.  Jack had never laid eyes on her before.  Jack filled in parts of his story for her, his path back to employment and stability after addiction and prison.  Marcy needed to hear many times in different ways how he had changed.  She had spent five years protecting and raising their child on her own.  She didn’t expect that two hours of talk would change her feelings or her resolve to protect her daughter from a man she didn’t trust.

Neither Jack nor Marcy entered the mediation believing they had a chance to fix their problems outside of the courtroom. They arrived at the mediation without the expectation of finding an answer.  But, they came with questions. For Jack, the questions centered on what he could do to prove himself to Marcy.  For Marcy, the questions centered around her fears and concerns.  How could she leave her daughter with a stranger, for this was what Jack would be to their daughter?  How could she trust him again?  Question by question, they took apart and reassembled years of distance.  They devised a tentative agreement.  They exchanged phone numbers.  They set up a first play date between father and child.

The takeaway is bigger than words.  It is about the promise of their promise to work together for the sake of their daughter; it is about the possibility of getting beyond hurt to find happiness; it is about the hope of doing things better because they know more, now. Jack called after the mediation.  He left a message on my phone saying that things were going well and thanked me for making it possible.  I called him back to assure him that he and Marcy had done all the work.  I also thanked him for the honor of being present during their conversation.  And, for those days when life needs a little extra sweetness, I saved Jack’s message.  I hear the smile in his voice every time I listen.

*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.

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