A Mediation Story With Some Holiday Cheer

By Laura Melton Tucker, November 15th, 2011

Listen to this entry.

The holiday season is just a week away.  It is late fall/early winter in Iowa.  Most trees have dropped their leaves.  The landscape is transformed.  Spaces have opened up and the neighborhood looks bigger.  The view through my window is expansive.  Even the landscape understands the lesson of letting go to get something new.   Today’s yoga class bonked me over the head with the same concept.  Relaxing into a stretch, I found that  letting go of tension at a tight spot in my body allowed me to go deeper.  In mindfulness meditation, the practice of watching my thoughts bubble up, without judgment, taps into the same wisdom of letting go; not attaching importance to my thoughts gives me the freedom to experience the moment as expansively as possible.   Of course, I filter all of this through my mediator role.  The shift in a mediation session occurs when parties loosen their grip on an idea…when they let go their attachment to a view to consider a new perspective or a creative compromise. I feel honored to observe this happening at the mediation table.  One couple, in particular, comes to mind.  Here’s their story:*

Married 10 years, this couple has four elementary school aged children, two boys and two girls.   At the start of the session, I could feel the tension between the parents, for both stated a single priority – to win primary care of the children.  Even more difficult, one of the parents planned to move out of state, taking all four children.  The other parent would have to see the children over holidays and school breaks. The parent staying in Iowa argued for primary care so that the children could be spared the disruption of relocation.   This was a classic standoff.

As a mediator aside, when both parties lay down agendas so far apart, I internally remind myself that all is okay…I’m not here to fix this for them.   The magic of my work is not in my attention to their problem or its potential solutions, rather it is in the magic of the mediation process itself.  My client’s mediation experience rests in their mediator’s skillful, mindful attention to the mediation process.

Back to this remarkable couple.   After each parent laid out a narrative of why they needed primary care, including complications like schooling plans, the support of parents back home, the poor economy and its limitations on job flexibility, real estate sales, etc. the parents were left facing the awful reality that if one parent won, the other would lose.  Without coaxing, they naturally drifted to a place of softness, observing aloud one another’s importance to the kids, one another’s sacrifice for the family, the kid’s need for access to both parents.  Aloud, the parent’s started offering up creative solutions.  What about one parent having the kids during the school year and the other having them over the summer and school breaks and holidays?  What about the girls living with their mother during the school year and the boys living with their father combined with connected family time on a regular basis, meeting up at a neutral vacation home owned by the grandparents?  Ideas were flying.  The emotional constriction of this couple at the beginning of the session was replaced by a lightness of banter, an expansiveness of perspective, a spaciousness of feeling.  They left the long session with a list of information they would need to make their final decision.  They scheduled another mediation session allowing themselves interim time for careful consideration.

I was grateful to observe this couple.  They remind me of a joke in the mindfulness meditation community:  “Do you know why Buddhists don’t vacuum corners?  They don’t have any attachments.”  This couple laid down their attachments to primary care of the children to consider other options.  They opened themselves to the other’s perspective and began to do the hard work to craft their own solution rather than let their lawyers or the courts make decisions for them.  Their example is today’s takeaway:  letting go of our attachment to our views lets the possibility of something new, a workable compromise, perhaps, bubble up. Let’s clink our glasses of holiday cheer to that.  See you in the new year!

*Some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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