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The Larger Room

Heather was adamant. It would, after all, be the first time Peter looked after their two year old daughter. In fact, it would be the first time that he actually met Flora. Under the circumstances, Heather was always going to stay nearby. Not only did Flora need her presence, Heather also needed to see if Peter was up to the job.

Peter wasn’t sure of anything. He found the whole mediation process extremely stressful. This was their second attempt. The first, months earlier, had ended with no agreement about Peter seeing Flora. A year on, he was being offered the opportunity to see his daughter. As a result he was willing to jump through whatever hoops Heather might want to hold up. He said that he could completely understood her desire to watch him interact with Flora.

It seems I was the one in the room who felt uneasy.

On the one hand, the arrangements being discussed belonged to the parties, not to the mediator. If they seemed comfortable with what was being proposed, then what business was it of mine to object or disagree? For some mediators, this is precisely what impartiality in practice looks like. So perhaps the best thing for me to do was keep my concerns to myself and my mouth firmly shut.

On the other hand, impartiality is far from the final word in mediation. As I understand it, the purpose and function of impartiality is to promote constructive conversations between the parties. Conversations whose ultimate aim is to help people step more fully and firmly into their ongoing lives. Lives, it hardly need be said, almost entirely lived outside the room in which they now sat. 

The true test of a proposal’s success is not whether it makes sense within the confines of our office, but whether it will take root in the wider and wilder world outside our door. Good work can only be judged from the perspective of this larger room.

I believe there is real danger if we allow parties to pretend that large and small are one and the same, because they clearly aren’t. In our rooms, parties have the freedom to make any sort of proposals they wish, both serious and seriously flawed. It’s our job to help them differentiate, to not let them base their proposals on the existence of flying pigs.

Unfortunately, the fantasy element is not always as obvious as airborne livestock. Sometimes, clients can manufacture fictions that sound far more plausible. And that’s when mediators can get a bit twitchy.

In this particular instance, Heather believed that she was entitled to determine whether Peter was a fit father. And that this determination could be established on the basis of her observing the first and so far, only interaction between Peter and Flora. The visit itself was scheduled to last for no more than an hour.

From my perspective, this was a clear case of flying pigs. The trouble was, Heather had sufficient power in the relationship to force this fiction through. Peter was far too desperate to disagree.

I, on the other hand, was not.

If I let Heather become the lone author of this tale, then likely as not, that power imbalance would be played out over and over again in both the small room and the large. And while she currently had some trust issues regarding Peter and his parenting, she had also expressed the hope that they might yet collaborate in raising their daughter. Collaboration implies a joint story. This was only going to happen if Heather was willing to relinquish her sole power in the smaller room for the potential mutuality of the larger.

In short, I needed to find a way to bring the pig back to earth.  

I looked straight at Heather and said there was something I’d like to explore with her. And turning towards Peter, I said that for the next few minutes he could hum to himself. Of course, if he wanted to listen, he was free to do so.

When I turned back to Heather, she had started to hum. I took this as a good sign. We smiled at each other and I pressed on.

I said that I wanted to check somethings out with her – and I wanted her to let me know whether what I was saying was accurate.  I confirmed that Flora was her only child. She said she was. I asked whether Heather had started out like most first time parents — nervous, anxious and not quite sure what to do. Once again Heather agreed.

I went on. I guessed that she had learned how to be a mum like parents do – by trying things out, making mistakes and learning from experience. Heather nodded. I also assumed that most of that learning had been done in private, just between Flora and her. That she had made the bulk of her mistakes without anyone else there watching, judging, or assessing her parental fitness.

She agreed.

For her part, Heather had no difficulty admitting she hadn’t been perfect. She happily acknowledged that Flora was her best teacher and that it had been a case of paying attention and picking up the cues. And it had taken time.

By now my point was obvious. Peter was exactly where she had been two years previously, except he was supposed to hit the ground running, to be perfect from the start. To throw a pig in the air and watch it take flight.

To her credit, Heather smiled and said she did not expect perfection. At best, she expected Peter not to do daft or dangerous things with their daughter. We had a brief and somewhat absurd discussion about what might constitute daft and dangerous. Peter, too nervous to be anything but serious, promised that he would be careful.

And we were back in the larger room. Pig safely landed.

Heather was always going to pay close attention to the way Peter interacted with Flora. She could no more look away than she could stop worrying, stop caring, or stop being a parent. What had shifted was how she would interpret what she was seeing. This wasn’t a test, it was a beginning. And like many beginnings it was likely to be clumsy and slightly inept. And that wasn’t down to lack of care or effort – it was simply part of moving from ignorance to knowledge. This was how things worked out in the big wide world.

Had we less rapport, my intervention could have fallen very flat. Heather might well have felt that I was getting at her, telling her that she had no right to judge Peter. And she would have argued that she absolutely did. That her behaviour was precisely that of a responsible parent — and if Peter didn’t like it, he could take her to court.

As for me, I’d have to have taken my cue from Peter and backed down. Heather would continue to write the script and Peter would be punished severely if he fluffed his lines.

Instead, we shared some laughter.

From my perspective, I believe we crossed a threshold – moving from a neat and tidy fiction back out into the awkward messiness of real life. Pigs in muck, rather than pigs in mid-air.  

Mediation is often described as a future-focused endeavour. If this is indeed the case, then the future is being mapped out in two places simultaneously. On the one hand, we sit in small rooms encouraging clients to come up with new ideas, fresh imaginings to create a different sort of future. And at the same time, we need to continually check whether the proposals within, will actually work without.

As mentioned earlier, mediation is designed to help people step more fully and firmly into their ongoing lives. Lives that happen well away from our small offices. In this largest of rooms, where there are no guarantees, often the best we can hope for is that we’ve helped our clients meet the future with their feet on solid ground. And perhaps, with the confidence to look forward without the fear of being dumped on by a flock of flying pigs.  


Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has been mediating for the past 23 years across a range of disputes, including family, community, workplace and civil/commercial. He appreciates the fact that even after all this time, he is still quite capable of making mistakes and getting things wrong – it means that he has more… MORE >

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