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Mediation is Not Like Laundry

April 1, 2017/by Shari Bornstein

Ahh, laundry. Laundry has a set of rules and a distinct sense of structure to complete the task. There’s a beginning (clothes go into washing machine); there’s a middle (clothes go into dryer for a specified number of minutes); and an end (clothes are folded and put away). Mediation is not like laundry.

Mediation is the process by which a neutral professional assists parties in the resolution of their disputes by moving them away from positions and toward their interests. In the realm of divorce mediation, the parties’ personalities and emotional state can cause the process to veer off track, sometimes before it even gets on track. Maybe one of the parties calls to initiate the mediation process, but the other party is just not ready to begin the journey and drags his/her feet for months. Once the parties get into the room, the mediator might be surprised that the process doesn’t move forward in a predictable way. Perhaps one party did not gather necessary documents or tackle other homework assignments designed to move the process forward. A lack of finances may require postponement of a previously scheduled session. Mediators and the parties can become frustrated with the lack of movement. After all, parties spend their hard earned money to participate.

Dealing with a soon to be “ex,” even in the mediation process, evokes all sorts of emotions that make discussions messy and exhausting. Some folks need time to get themselves emotionally prepared for sessions which can be a painful reminder of the demise of the relationship. A party might even cut short a session and leave the room because the discussion turned overwhelming.

Sometimes people start the process and determine that it’s not the right one for them. They may transition to a different process to resolve their disagreements. There’s something to be said for the amount of control that exists over the task of doing laundry. Clothes don’t exit themselves from the washing machine because they don’t like the temperature of the water. They must be physically removed. Certain clothes go into the dryer and some are line dried.

A mediator whose expectations include the notion that cases will come through the door in a steady stream, clients will pay all fees timely and will attend appointments every other week at the same time, will become disillusioned with their practice. A seasoned mediator realizes that clients are not like towels that are washed, tumble dried, folded and placed back in the linen closet. Parties come to the process with fears and expectations, very often different ones from their partner. A mediator must be able to work with clients where they are, not where the mediator wants them to be. The mediation process does not fit neatly into a particular laundry bin. Most importantly, clients need to feel that they’ve been heard by the mediator during the process. It may be their only opportunity to vent their sadness and frustration with the situation in which they’ve found themselves, even if the separation or divorce was their idea. An experienced mediator will be attuned to the clients’ needs, aware that handling every case with the same pre-conceived approach will not satisfy every case. Sometimes a resolution requires understanding that some items are not best laundered by only following the laundry instructions sewn into the back of an item of clothing.

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Shari Bornstein is an attorney and mediator. Learn more.

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