You want help from a professional whose specialty is facilitating more productive family conversations, so that everyone can move on with their lives, with greater clarity and resolution. BUT HOW do you build support within your family for going to mediation? Below are conversation starters that may help, as well as responses to common “pushback” to mediation.
Sample Conversation Starters
Pick only the ones that fit you AND your situation.
Consider beginning the conversation with neutral observations about areas of concern.
EX: “I notice / It seems / There is an issue with [e.g. mom not eating / disorganized].
While expressing your own concerns, acknowledge other people’s concerns
EX: “Mom, we are concerned about your safety and know that when we express those concerns it feels like control to you, and no one likes to feel like they are losing control. We want you to feel independent.”
Where possible, describe mutual interests WHILE acknowledging differences of opinion
- EX: “We both want Dad to get good care. We just differ about what that looks like.”
- EX: “I want to make sure that Mom’s finances are o.k. and I know that you care too even if we express that concern differently.”
- EX: “There’s a line between caring and control and we probably draw that line differently. I would like to talk about that line, to explore what can and should be done. Can we do that, please?”
Acknowledge other people’s discomfort with talking
- EX: “I know that you don’t want to discuss this topic but it’s important to me that we do. I would like to find a way that works for you, that addresses your need for [xyz].”
- EX: “I know this topic is uncomfortable and that you would rather we not discuss it. At the same time, it’s important to me, and I’d like for all of us to figure this out together.”
- EX: “Can we all agree that it’s important to be ready for whatever lies ahead, to the extent we can? We need / I would like to talk about how to do that.”
- DISTANCE/TIME EX: “Yes, I know that you are too far away to help day-to-day” or “You are busy with your own life,” followed by “But everyone can do something. I would like to talk about how you can help even if you don’t think there is anything to talk about. Can you do me that favor?”
- FINANCES EX: “Mom, it’s important for you to choose someone for when something unexpected happens in the future. It would relieve my stress and give you reassurance that if something unexpected happens, things will get sorted out the way you want. Can we have that conversation?”
- FINANCES EX: “Dad, we have no desire to be told your personal financial details now; no desire to interfere. We just want to make sure that you choose someone to help out when you no longer can, someone who knows your financial values, needs and expectations. We want to make sure that whoever you appoint as your financial advocate has instructions on how to access information when needed.”
- FINANCES EX:“ If privacy is an issue, or if you are afraid of possibly hurting feelings, there’s a way to plan while still keeping privacy. A mediator can help with that.”
- GENERAL DECLINE EX: “It’s a good idea for any of us to err on the safe side by appointing someone to step in if and when something happens. It’s something everyone should do.” (Avoid unpleasant terms like “disease” or “disability”)
- GENERAL DECLINE EX: “Anyone can face unexpected health problems or emergencies, so it’s best to act now to be ready for what lies ahead. Making a plan is simply smart.”
- DRIVING EX: “We want to support you driving as long as possible. And we want to talk about how to do that, safely. Frankly, this affects everyone, not just you. And we all have to wrestle with how to be safe. Even capable, independent people lose visual acuity and their reflexes slow down.”
They underlie most conflict and can’t be avoided.
- “I’ve got a lot of feelings about Mom and Dad, some that I’m uncomfortable with and I’m not sure they make sense. Maybe you do too. We can ignore them and continue to waste time and energy dwelling on them (in sneaky ways like fuming, venting, complaining, designing a workaround, lying awake thinking about them). Or, with the help of a mediator, we can identify and explore them just enough in order to work through our challenges with Mom and Dad’s care [or xyz].”
- “I don’t want to have a battle of anger with you anymore; instead of trading jabs, I want to talk about a spectrum of other emotions (even positive ones), understand each other’s motivations and the impact on one another. I want to get to a better place with you.”
- “Before I give you a sense of what’s going on with me, can you tell me more about your feelings.” (When you listen deeply to another person, they will do the same for you.)
- “I don’t want to change your mind about anything. I just want to share my story, how I feel. I don’t need to hear that everything will be okay or that it was someone’s else’s fault or that other people have stories just as terrible as mine. I just want to share my story, my feelings. It would mean so much to me.”
- “Feelings aren’t all that matters. They are difficult and troubling, and we still have a job to do. I know the process of working on our relationship and solving the problems we face can be long and hard. I’m ready to do my part.”
- If you think feelings have an affect on a family situation, acknowledge someone’s feelings, let them know that what they have said has made an impression on you.
Address poor communication
- “We’ve had some bad go-arounds and we aren’t communicating well. I want to avoid further damage to [our relationship or others]. Getting a third person with experience in situations like this involved could be useful. What do you think?”
- “We need help communicating better and figuring out how to make decisions, what’s fair, and roles and responsibilities. A mediator can help. That’s their job.”
Explaining Mediation’s “Secret Sauce”
- Why it works where past conversations have failed.
- Participants’ mindset
- Coming into mediation, participants have been coached in a manner designed to make the family meeting as productive and healing as possible for everyone
- Mediator “magic”
- Mediator is a true neutral, representing each person equally
- Can “go there” in conversation, asking probing questions that others can’t or won’t
- Can help rebuild trust, so that future collaboration is possible
- Can help people work through questions of fairness that underlie many disputes
- Can help people explore a range of feelings that contribute to current problem
- Can make people feel safe, secure and respected
- Improve communication by helping correct harmful communication patterns/styles, emphasizing active listening, and minimizing distractions
- Provide general information and help people gather the information they need
- Help families problem solve by identifying priorities, creating and working through options until they come up with a realistic solution that everyone is comfortable with and that is likely to last
- Unique semi-formal structure
- A new venue, with everyone together (that may not have happened before)
- Voluntary; people agree only to what they want to agree to (so more likely to stick)
- Guided discussion and negotiation, with ground rules
Common Pushback to Mediation
“Should we see a therapist or counselor instead?”
RESPONSE: While there are therapeutic aspects to mediation, it is distinct from therapy and counseling. You may want both. A therapist provides psychotherapy,spending considerable time dwelling on the past, treating mental disorders and discussing feelings a lot. In contrast, a mediator focuses more on problem-solving, facilitating conversation and negotiation between multiple parties. Discussing feelings are a means to an end. Also, a family therapist often meets weekly for an hour over a long period, while mediation is a shorter, more concentrated period.
“I can’t afford mediation.”
RESPONSE: Sometimes, money is a stated reason, but it is really something else. It might be fear of an unknown process. And even when cost is a legitimate issue, it’s worth noting that mediation can save family members more money in the long-run by preventing costly mistakes.
“Mediation doesn’t work in a zero sum game.”
RESPONSE: Usually, there is no zero sum. There is almost always an element of “win win.”
“We have a secret that we don’t want anyone else to know.”
RESPONSE: The process is voluntary, so no one can make you tell your secret. It is also confidential, so your secret is safe. But remember, sometimes a judiciously timed disclosure of a “secret” is the impetus for a proposal with terms that may surprise.
“Why should I mediate? I’ve got Power of Attorney and all the control.”
RESPONSE: Perhaps there is something less obvious to be gained in mediation, e.g. preservation or rebuilding of relationships. You won’t know without trying.
“We’ve already tried resolving problems w/o success. . .mediation will waste more time.”
RESPONSE: Family talks with the support of a family mediator are inherently different.
Obstacles to Mediation
- Notwithstanding best intentions and logic, people may resist mediation.
- Oftentimes, there are ways to overcome initial resistance >>> discuss with a mediator.
- Give it time >>> sometimes, people need time to process and get comfortable.
Some of the suggestions and quotes are from “Difficult Conversations,” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, And Sheila Heen (1999), class materials from Crystal Thorpe’s Elder Mediation training (2020), Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, and “How to Care for Aging Parents” by Virginia Morris (1996).
For more information, go to www.mediateforward.com.