Find Mediators Near You:

The One That Got Away

Mediation is great teacher. Mostly I learn how easy it is for me to still miss things, to do less than sterling work. Instant feedback and a continual shove towards humility. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been fishing in this same pond for twenty-three years.

Let me give you an example of my incompetence. I recently did a family case where mum declared that the appropriate amount of contact between dad and their two year old daughter was every other month. She delivered this figure with utter certainty and a complete lack of doubt. It wasn’t her opinion, it was simply the right thing to do.   

Now I have no idea why mum thought once every two months was appropriate. I turned and looked at dad, expecting him to charge up the hill towards the high moral ground and tell her that she was being ridiculous. Instead, when I looked, he was delightedly nodding his head. He was thrilled to be having some contact, any contact. He’d waited almost a year to get even this much. He wasn’t going to shoot himself in the foot by arguing.

Now, I can easily use dad’s acceptance as an excuse for me holding my tongue. And without doubt, it would definitely be an excuse. And in doing so, I would be abdicating my responsibility as a mediator.

For me, mediation is about helping people make informed choices. To make proposals that make sense to them. Sometimes, having spent a session going round and round in ever decreasing circles, the proposal that makes the most sense is to use something other than mediation to sort out their issues. In my book this still counts as an informed choice.

Unfortunately, in this particular instance, I had absolutely no idea of where the notion of two months came from or why it made sense. To mum. Or to dad.

And instead of flagging up my confusion, rather than insist on the principle of ‘informed choice’, I let the proposal, like some elusive fish, slip away into the shadows. And I knew at the time that I had made a mistake. The little voice in my head starting prattling and I couldn’t turn it off. It had noticed. It wasn’t pleased. And I wasn’t going to be let off the hook.

In my more pitiful moments I’d like to have blamed the clients. Mum was clearly a control freak and was giving with one hand and taking with the other. Dad was a coward and a wimp, who wouldn’t stand up against his ex-partner, even for the sake of his daughter.

And these statements, whether they contain a grain of truth or not, are actually irrelevant. It isn’t the client’s job to insist on ‘informed choice’. They mostly come into the room with choices based on unspoken fears, ill-defined needs and less than completely secret agendas. It’s my job to coax informed out into the open.

So why did I hold back? Why did I stop fishing for informed?

I think there were a number of reasons I kept my mouth shut. None of them particularly good, many of them serving only as post-event justifications. There may be others, but these are the ones that rose to the surface first:

1.       She seemed very certain

2.       He didn’t object

3.       I was worried that I’d  intervened a couple of times already and if I did it again I would lose rapport – especially with her

4.       If I said anything, he’d panic and say two months was fine – and then I’d lose rapport with him

5.       They hadn’t paused and other important issues were now swimming into view

6.       She seemed fairly sane, so I was sure that she’d eventually say why two months made sense to her. She never did.

7.       I was grateful that she was offering anything

8.       Maybe two months really was OK

9.       I stopped being curious. So instead of inquiring about her proposal, I wanted to make one of my own – and this would have left me high and dry.

None of these are particular good reasons, at least not in the sense of assuaging my guilt for staying silent. They may explain, but they certainly don’t exonerate.

So what did I learn from this experience? Mostly that mediation is a cruel mistress. You can love the work, bring your best to the endeavour – and she will still castigate you for the things you didn’t quite manage to pull off perfectly.

Does this mean that I will stop loving what I do? Nope. At least not yet.

Does it mean that I should focus only on what I missed? That would be partial and self-centred.

In this particular case, both mum and dad left the session feeling they had taken a real step forward. Beating myself up would only devalue the progress they had made. It would also make it less likely for me to go back into the water next time round.

In thinking about my practice, I figure I probably miss about 20% of stuff that I ought to catch. Sometimes it gets away from me because I’m not paying close enough attention, sometimes because I’m tired, and sometimes because I lack the skill or courage to say what might be said. I have no idea whether 20% is an accurate figure, but it feels about right. At least in terms of what I can bear to admit and still keep going.

And that’s the real point. I do think it is my responsibility to catch the stuff as it drifts past during a session. And like many a fisherman, I sometimes focus more on the one that got away rather than the ones that I managed to catch.

Which helps explain why I keep getting back into the damn boat.


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 >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Getting “the Good Stuff” from Feedback

  I confess that I have had a love-hate relationship with feedback. In my teaching and coaching, I am passionately committed to improving and growing. And, I always want to...

By Lorraine Segal

WORP Outreach Reflections

This PDF is a case study of an “outside mediation boundaries” project in Oregon, the 2.7 million acre Western Oregon Plan Revisions. This graphic-rich report is less a “we did...

By Carie Fox

Mediation is Hard!

Each week, The Economist prints an opinion article in its business section entitled “Bartleby”. Its January 19, 2023 piece is entitled “Why pointing fingers is unhelpful”. Its thesis is that while it...

By Phyllis Pollack