It’s Not Us But It

I was presenting on Tuesday at a FMA day in Durham where I think I managed not to bore the audience about financial mediation, specifically disclosure and points to watch for. I hope so anyway. It’s always a plus to have one’s listeners awake at the end!

One of the other presenters was Michael Jacobs on working with high conflict couples. If you haven’t been to one of his courses and get the chance, do go as he is lively and engaging with definitely no risk of audiences dozing off.

Anyway, back to conflict. We mediators bandy around the phrase “high conflict couples”. What on earth does it mean? Well, I guess the short, perhaps flippant, answer is you certainly  know when you are in the room with such a couple. Whilst conflict, or at the very least periodic tension, is present in most mediations, there’s a world of difference between real entrenched conflict and issues which arise and can be addressed so that everybody is able to move on with the mediation. High conflict sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It absorbs everyone’s energy and means that making any progress in the mediation is effectively impossible.

If it’s apparent at that stage, a case will have been assessed as not suitable for mediation. The mediator serves no purpose if reduced to a lion tamer darting between two stools in an attempt just to keep the lions calm. The problem is that the true depth of the conflict often only reveals itself in the mediation room. So, what to do?

And that’s where Michael comes in. His main idea is to separate the conflict from your clients. Rather than try to manage them, the trick is to invite them to look at their conflict as a problem external to them both which has them both in its clutches. So rather than focus on the way in which your clients are behaving-or more accurately misbehaving-, you take a time out to have them consider the conflict as if it’s a fourth presence in the room. The mediator tries then to discover how keen the clients are to escape the conflict and invites them to consider what life might be like without it and how it may, possibly, be banished.

I can certainly see that demonising the anger in the room is a great deal more constructive than treating ones clients like especially naughty school children who could do a lot better. I can also see that it may well help to try to mutualise efforts to step away from the anger. The fact is that most clients don’t like the people whom they become when in the grip of rage.

It remains to be seen how effective I can be at isolating the conflict and encouraging my clients to work together on the It in the room with us that stops dialogue let alone attempts to negotiate about actual issues.


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