Find Mediators Near You:

Metaphor and Mediation – Part Two

Part One Part Three

In the next case we look at the mediator’s positive use of the war metaphor and then, later in the session, see the mediator using the mediator-as-magician metaphor to help the couple let go of the idea there is one simple solution.

Jim and June separated eighteen months ago. Jim simply picked up and left one day. June says she was unaware of any problem and was stunned by Jim’s decision. They have three children, Donald, age 17, Laura age 12 and David age 3. The parenting arrangements for the two older children present no problem but the arrangements for David, are in dispute. June insists that, whenever David is with his father, Jim’s girlfriend not be around. So far Jim has agreed to this. Now she wants him to take the children more often and Jim wants the ban on his girlfriend lifted.

Mediator: What does Laura think about this? If we were to ask her what would she say?

Jim: Regarding what?

Mediator: What she would like.

Jim: In what context?

Mediator: Her relationship with her dad.

Jim: Basically, all she says about it, and I’ve asked her about it two or three times. She basically wants no wars.

Mediator: It is always interesting when our children use that metaphor comparing disagreements to war…

Jim: No. No. That wasn’t Lucy’s words, those were my words. All she wants is no ongoing arguments.

The husband used the war metaphor in a sad rather than a descriptive way. He does not want a war but feels trapped in a war. Therefore, the mediator uses the war metaphor productively.

Mediator: How can you have your legitimate war without involving the children?

(long silence)

June: I don’t think it’s possible, myself.

Mediator: I’m not going to sit here and suggest you put aside all your anger. I cannot ask you to do that because you cannot do that. (to H) I can’t ask you to say, ‘ok I’m going to forget everything that happened in the last year and put it all aside’.

This legitimated their current feelings about the conflict and tells them I have heard the metaphor. However, having validated their metaphor I will now move to change it. The end of the statement, “put it all aside”, is a change to a container metaphor.

Mediator: Time will resolve it but you’re not going to lay it all aside. It will dissolve in time because things get less important as time goes on – if they don’t continue. If they continue, they grow. If they don’t continue, then as time goes on they sort of dissolve away. So, I’m trying to think how you two could deal with the issues between you. Because no marriage ends without a number of things each of you have done along the way. It takes two to tango, you’ve both done some things and both had things done to you. You’ve got some legitimate stuff there. The question is how to deal with that as adults while keeping out – playing a protective role for the children to protect them so they don’t have to make those choices.

This opens with a chemical metaphor and closes with a conflict is a dance metaphor – but it takes both parties to the conflict to make it a dance. It is a face-saving way for a client to accept responsibility for their role in the conflict. Thus it is a mutualizing strategy while normalizing their experience. When June maintained her position firmly, I tried a different approach.

Mediator: I’m not asking you to come down off that one, June.

This could be a “high horse” or the “high ground.” In this context I am using the high ground meaning. This is a war metaphor since the defending troops always tried to be on the high ground which was easier to defend. When these various strategies prove fruitless, (mediation as a bad harvest) I turn to redefining the mediator’s role. I felt that the parties were trying to make me come up with the answers. So, I use the following magician metaphor.

Mediator: My sense is that what you would both like is for me to produce a magic wand that says, ‘There goes your business. There goes your business.’ But that ain’t going to happen. It doesn’t go that way. It takes a few years to dissolve. This is not resolvable you can’t resolve that. It will dissolve over the next couple of years.

This probably could be strengthened by suggesting to the couple that they are in the eye of their storm right now but soon, it would be calm and time for change and stability.

The fighting continued without abatement, June refused to lift her ban on the other woman and no solution seemed in sight. So I used a conflict as a negative journey metaphor before moving them towards a productive journey metaphor.

Mediator: You are both on a downward spiral. You both have a tendency to collect grievances and when you’ve got them you don’t particularly like to let go of them. I sense that while you are quiet about it, Jim, it is a trait that you share with June. You collect your grievances and carry them along with you. (reminding them that life is a journey) You’re at the point now where your relationship only gives you the chance to collect grievances. It’s time to take a look to see whether you can trade a couple of niceties (reminding them that this is an arena of negotiation) Because you have both had the door slammed in your face when you thought you were doing something nice for each other and nothing is worse that putting out a nice hand and having the door slammed. But if you don’t take the risk to try something nice then all that will happen in the next six months is that you will each collect, like Santa Claus, a sackful of grievances and, come Christmas, all you’ll have, in a sense, is a bunch of gorgeous grievances.

The above monologue is entirely metaphorical. Yet, you understand exactly what I am saying in this context. The participants also knew exactly what I was saying and meant. They took the metaphors and translated them into their experiences that had meaning to them.

One last monologue is worth recording here which uses a life is a journey metaphor with the conflict as a fixed point in time. June acknowledged that her attorney had told her that while she could prevent David going to see his dad if the other woman was there she could not continue to bar the access if Jim married the other woman.

Mediator: You have fifteen years of parenting ahead of you. Neither of you wants to lock yourself into being grudging for those years and in some sense, neither of you wants to get locked in. So, you have to do something with your current relationship because your current relationship (June was also seeing another man) may not be what you want to live with permanently. You each want to be free to pursue the relationship without being locked in one way or the other. Therefore, you don’t want to make demands on the other that solidifies those relationships since they may not be permanent in the long term.

In these clips from two cases, you can see how the mediator uses metaphors to develop a future focussed, problem solving framework for the negotiations. Most of the interventions and metaphors are used while the mediator is exerting process control.


John Haynes

Until 1978, there was no publicly available way in the United Kingdom of resolving divorce issues other than by separate legal representation. For a third person to help the divorcing partners work out, co-operatively, the consequences of their parting was revolutionary. The Finer Committee in 1973 recommended such a scheme,… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Susan Carpenter: Inspired by Peace Corp – Video

Susan Carpenter talks about her work in the Peace Corp and social movements in the US.

By Susan Carpenter

Remembering Elayne Greenberg

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of our dear colleague Elayne Greenberg on Friday, April 19. Elayne became the first Director of The Hugh L. Carey...

By James (Jim) Melamed

RSI Board Member Alyson Carrel Presents at Court-Annexed Mediation Seminar

Just Court ADR by Susan M. Yates, Jennifer Shack, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, and Jessica Glowinski.In February, RSI Board Member Alyson Carrel was the featured speaker at the Cook County, Illinois,...

By Nicole Wilmet