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What is the role of a mediator and how can they help?

View profile for Michael Cork
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Michael Cork is an accredited mediator who has worked with Family Law Group since 2014. In the third of his four blogs, he looks at the role of a mediator, how the process works and when mediation may not be suitable. He hopes that in breaking down how our services around mediation and MIAMS can be used by our clients, Family Law Group can continue to help people through the UK.

Building Bridges, a great name for a mediation service I think, or, more precisely, a conflict resolution practice. I simply like the idea of attempting to bridge the divide between two opposing elements, or parents, in our line of work.

When I was a Cafcass Family Court Advisor, I regularly practised asking children about their wishes and hopes for the present and their future in relation to their parents and family. I often asked younger children to imagine living on an island (a fantasy island indeed) and who would they choose to inhabit their island with them. When they choose to put a parent and other family living on other islands, I would ask them about the possibility of inserting bridges between the islands so that they could cross and visit.

So, it is with parents, who have separated and live in different places and have to consider their future arrangements including their children. I wonder whether the hostile environment between their respective islands could be bridged so that they could communicate and let their children come and go as they need.

Emotions in a post separation world

Anger and blame are common elements in the post-separation world. Sadness too. It is strange to think that two people who were once in love and very close and who brought a child into the world together should become so far apart, overcome with acrimony and distrust that they can no longer resolve their differences. Maybe it always felt like that and they always argued. Maybe they are just temporarily stuck in their conflicting emotions. A question on every mediator’s mind at the outset is, what has caused this conflict? Has it always been there, or are there times and occurrences when they actually did agree? If they did, what helped in those situations? Sometimes the ever-present conflict is about the clash between two internal forces that, once separated, need to be realigned. This is to do with one’s principles and interests.

In conflict resolution, we are met with the difficult task of finding ways in which both parties can agree with each other without losing either. The way that we can do this is to explore needs. In doing so we may be able to help you find an emotional transition so that you can move from the old feelings to newer ones. It is often the case that one person’s emotions and needs are at a different level from the other person. How often does it seem that one of the parents has ‘moved on’, found someone else, has a new identity and the other one has felt left behind with feelings of sadness or regret or even anger.

What is a mediator’s role?

A mediator’s role is not to become involved in the outcome, and to find solutions for them. The role is to ask questions and help the stuck couple to navigate their way through their entanglement. Sometimes this can just be facilitating (the discussion) or sometimes it can be transformative, in the sense that couples can re-learn how to communicate with each other. It is essentially there to provide you with the safe space to have a structured conversation with your ex-partner to find solutions for you and your children. The mediator will help the two of you to be able to listen to each other and understand how you both feel about things. It is there to help with practical solutions when necessary by making suggestions. These are based on the 26 years of working in the family court and as a child and family social worker. There are times when ‘life admin’ gets in the way, such as with two working patterns to accommodate, school times, geographic locations, grandparents, other partners’ children, and this may seem endless and beyond resolve. On other occasions, the dispute is more deep-seated than a practical obstacle and goes to the heart of the conflict. In these circumstances, the mediator will need to explore with you both how matters have become emotionally stuck and to share what is important for you both.

What about a family breakdown?

In family breakdown, the post-separation arguments can be assessed in this way. It might help to break the conflict into three sections, principles, interests, and needs.

A father or mother may consider that he/she has given in too often and has lost out on too many occasions, so decides to make a principled stand, he/she is not backing down anymore. They are prepared to go to court in full belief of the strength of their case.

Principles: ‘a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning. When a person’s internal decision-making process has determined that they a) will not be dictated to by the ex-partner about their children or b) they will not be classed as a poor parent c) they will not be let down or lied to anymore by them (or all three).

Interests: ‘something that brings advantages to or affects someone or something’. When a parent decides that it is in his or her interest or their child’s interest to support a set of contact rules/arrangements. This sounds more hopeful and may assist with finding the right area for agreement, as it could be in everyone’s interests to agree on the best outcome for both sides. But agreeing upon whose interests it favours may also lead to problems in trying to resolve matters.

Needs: ‘the things you must have for a satisfactory life’ (Cambridge Dictionary). As a mediator I see my role as helping people find the right outcome and best solution to their conflict and disputes. Helping them to find what they need and what their children need is one way of exploring this path. I ask questions like, “What do you think your child needs from you as parents right now and in the future?” “What would be the effect on your child if this situation continues to exist like this?” I always want to know more about their children and so I will ask about them, how they are, how they were in the past and what makes them happy. It is lovely in my role hearing conflicted parents agree on their child’s little ways and their little foibles. It is amazing to hear them say things like, “Oh, does she do that with you as well?”

A child’s best interests or need is for his/her parents to work together consistently in their child’s interests and not to expose them to an endless cycle of conflict and disruption. Children consistently grow up and develop a poor sense of self, a lack of self-esteem and an insecure emotional base when exposed to regular parental conflict. Of course, it is a struggle when parents think they know best their children’s interests and not the other parent.


When is mediation not suitable?

It is important to stress that there are certain cases we would not advise mediation, and this is where there has been significant domestic abuse. Our MIAMs are designed to examine any past or current experiences of this with each new client. Mediators will deem a case to be unsuitable when this is highlighted as a problem and especially if the mediation may be a means of continuing this experience. If parents wish to have a mediation, but do not want to meet then on request we would run a ‘shuttle mediation’ session. The mediator continues the process of assisting parents to have discussions about their child, but not at the same time. The mediator will speak to each person in turn and will accurately feedback the views of each in turn.

There may be times when mediation is not suitable because there are allegations being made by one parent against the other which are significant and may be do with their parenting ability. Let us say one parent accuses the other of having an unsuitable or aggressive new partner visit the house or is a heavy drug user. Another one might accuse the other of deliberately maligning them to the children.

Such accusations may need proof in a court of law, such as a fact-finding hearing to establish the veracity of the claims. Certainly, if the court found that no such evidence exists, then mediation could be reinstated at that point.

Michael’s final blog will summarise his lengthy career and how child inclusive mediation could make a real difference to a child’s future in a mediation case. Our mediation team can be contacted on 0800 1777121 or