Bridge the Divide: Negotiations in Mediation


The anger in the room was palpable. I was sitting at a round table with a husband and wife who had chosen to use mediation as a way to come to terms on their divorce agreement. According to the wife, the husband had been unfaithful several times throughout their marriage. According to the husband, the two had not been intimate for many years. Regardless of why the couple was now facing the end of their marriage, in order for negotiations in mediation to be productive, we needed to find ways to bridge the divide between them. It's not uncommon for years of disappointment and frustration to come to a head when couples are going through a divorce. Often, it's the reason that individuals think that they cannot mediate their divorce settlement. 

Negotiating the Nonnegotiable

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a continuing education program on this very topic. Dr. Daniel Shapiro of the Harvard International Negotiation Program presented content from his book, Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve the Most Emotionally Charged ConflictsWhile Dr. Shapiro has been involved in negotiations in some of the most violent areas in the world, the framework he shared is relevant for even the most personal conflicts. As part of his presentation, he outlined how to counteract the five lures of what he refers to as the tribal mind. Counteracting these temptations are key to bridging the divide and having productive conversations in mediation.

The Tribal Mind

The tribal mind is characterized by a "me vs. you" mentality. Even if you have never participated in a divorce mediation before, I'm sure that you can see how easy it would be to be lured into the tribal mind. The biggest problem with the tribal mind is it makes people feel like things are non-negotiable and thus, the issue cannot be mediated. Being able to remain rational is key to decision-making in mediation. It is also the key to bridging the divide between parties who cannot see eye-to-eye on anything.

When our identity feel threatened, a whole set of emotional forces lure us into conflict. - Dr. Daniel Shapiro


Counteract these temptations to bridge the divide in mediation

Here are the five lures that Shapiro presented:

1. Vertigo

Vertigo is when time and space collapse. While I try to have clients focus on the future when going through mediation, it is common for memories to bring them right back to moments in the past - moments that may have happened last week, last month or even ten years ago but it feels like they are happening all over again. When in Vertigo, parties are unable to think clearly to make decisions about the future.  Judgment is clouded with all of the emotions from the past. The first step in avoiding Vertigo is recognizing that it is a problem that can hinder progress in mediation. Staying in the present moment and focusing on what you want your future to be like is critical.

2. Taboos

Taboos may be the elephants in the room. Consider if there is something that should be discussed that has not been. Also, consider if the topics that are being addressed are ones that you do not feel comfortable addressing and where that discomfort is coming from. According to Shapiro, taboos can be handled in three different ways: (1) Accept it, (2) chisel away at the issues, or (3) tear it down.

3. Repetition Compulsion

Repetition compulsion has to do with conflict patterns. Is there something that is triggering the same conflict in your relationship. Is the trigger bringing you into the cycle of conflict so you are unable to move forward? Sometimes there is comfort in the predictability of the cycle. It can actually become a part of our identity over time. While there may be comfort in the pattern, it has consistently proven unproductive. In mediation, we need to consciously choose to participate in a new pattern that leads to resolution.

4. Assault on the Sacred

Assault on the sacred is about feeling like the most important aspects of your identity are under attack. When going through a divorce, you are going through it with someone who knows you very well and knows what is most important to you. It is important that you both make a commitment to respect what each holds sacred throughout the mediation process.

5. Identity Politics

Identity politics is the last lure that Dr. Shaprio identified in his presentation. Identity politics has to do with whom we build affiliations. I always encourage clients to keep the conversations in mediation confidential. I recognize that many feel the need to blow off steam as they work through their divorce settlement. However, discussing the conflict with family and friends has the potential to pull you out of rationality and into emotionality.

Mediation is an Option Worth Considering

Many couples believe that their divorce cannot be mediated. It is not an easy choice. However, if Dr. Shapiro can help political leaders with negotiations in mediation in some of the most violent areas in the world, I have to believe that mediation is a possible solution for more couples than who realize it.  Divorce is difficult no matter what process you choose. Mediation gives you the greatest control over the process as well as the outcome.

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