Divorce mediation is a form of conflict resolution. It can help a couple avoid a court battle by fashioning their own divorce agreements.
Divorcing couples who make use of divorce mediation have varying levels of conflict. Most often the level of conflict is relatively low. There is usually a desire for assistance in understanding the territory of divorce. And there is a desire for assistance in coming up with reasonable, workable solutions. The couple usually has some disagreements. But both spouses usually want these disagreements to be resolved somehow rather than see them turn into a heated or expensive conflict.
Conflict Resolution or Problem Solving?
What actually goes on in divorce mediation sessions is more akin to problem solving than conflict resolution. It’s also easier to understand if you think of it as problem solving.
The court expects certain bases to be covered in a divorce settlement document. In broad terms, these are division of assets/debts and spousal support (plus a co-parenting plan and child support if there are minor children). The couple’s objective in divorce mediation is therefore to cover these bases with agreements. Each “base” can be viewed as a problem or set of problems awaiting a solution.
Problem solving comes naturally to most of us. It works best when everyone participates, explains their concerns and objectives, and contributes useful information and ideas. It’s best done as a team rather than as adversaries. It often actually builds rapport.
The mediator’s main job is to facilitate this team-oriented, problem-solving by the spouses. As agreements are reached, there are less problems to be solved until everything has been documented in a comprehensive divorce agreement.
Problem Solving Approach
Problem solving in divorce mediation should look something like the following:
1) Establish an agenda. Determine what will be the harder areas and save these for later. Start with areas in which there is already some agreement. Tackle one area at a time, allowing for the possibility that it may become necessary to return later for refinement.
2) For each area, work out a problem-solving statement. A problem well stated is on its way to resolution. Create positive statements along the lines of “what is the best way for us to…” The statement should capture the complexity of the problem and its various main facets. The facets can then be broken down and considered separately.
3) Identify desired information and documentation. Often there will be “homework” for the spouses so they can be prepared to have a productive discussion. What information is needed, who has it and when can we obtain it. This may involve the use of outside experts such as appraisers.
4) Hear and clarify each spouse’s desired outcomes and interests concerning the problem area. This should be relatively easy because agreement is not needed. The more interests we surface and acknowledge, the more we can potentially satisfy and the more richly we can address the problem.
5) Come up with options to help satisfy one or more of the interests. Think broadly and generate lots of options to open up the world of possibility. This also should not be too hard because at this stage agreement is not required. If necessary or requested, the mediator can also contribute options for consideration.
6) Select from options. This can be by whatever subjective/objective criteria works for the spouses. Options can be combined in different ways. There may be possible “package deals” in which each spouse gives thing(s) to the other in order to get thing(s) important to them.
7) Integrate the options selected into the overall solution. See if anyone has ideas for an even better solution. Note any gaps that still need to be filled.