“Doing it Different” @ Tools4Life

Two years ago I was confronted with a serious dilemma in my professional practice.  I had a very difficult case that put me in the edge state of empathetic distress!  I clearly saw how the anger and hatred exhibited by these two parents toward one another was harming the spirits of their children.  I knew, without a doubt, that they loved their children and wanted their children but were incapable of seeing how their conflict was creating discipline issues, sustaining confusion and scaring their children.  I just knew that they needed help but I was not so sure that I had the tools in my box to aid them.  I tried traditional family therapy techniques but to no avail and that’s when I began considering “doing it differently” but was challenged to find that “different way”  of doing what I have been doing for over twenty-six years.

In my initial search, I found the term “therapeutic mediation.” (Schepard & Bozzomo, 2003).  The challenge for me was to create a brand-new “peacemaker hat” that included both mediation and counseling.  I knew that I needed to help parents to advocate for themselves and in the best interest of their children without putting too much focus on self-interests.  I knew that I wanted to educate parents and promote a way to reflect on their evolution as a family unit – the design was definitely going to look different.  I felt that by redefining conflict as a positive medium to change the power behind their fear would be reduced. Thus, leaving room for the possibility of transcendence within the family unit.  This search was my attempt to find that “hat.”

I have discovered that it was necessary to transcend the narrow perspectives of mediation as a craft and propose that peacemaking is more about creating “relationship art.”  Relationships are created and sustained over time by vesting in the connection between the two or more parties.  Matthew Lieberman states in his book “Social” that “…our brains are built to practice thinking about the social world and our place in it.” (p. 22). He goes on to say that human babies “really need from the moment of birth is a caregiver who is committed to making sure that the infant’s biological needs are met.”  (Lieberman, p. 43).  I would include spiritual, and emotional to this list. So, from the beginning of human life, there exists a hunger for connection, the bedrock upon which we build our ability to survive. Conflict is inherent in relationships and is not always negative.

The word “conflict” comes from the Latin word “conflictus” and means “to strike together.”  Conflict can be interpreted as metaphorical as well as actual when engaged in relationships.  The conflict between related parties includes a difference of opinion regarding a “relationship story,” and then the possibility arises that their relationship story evolves into a “conflict story.” (Cloke, 2006).  Assisting individuals in transforming their conflict stories into new relationship stories is the work of a Peacemaker.  The Peacemaker’s role involves creating space for nonjudgment (unbiased space for exhibiting and observation of the conflict story), listening for the genuine interests currently unheard, and providing the artists with tools to understand the level of attachment to concerns of the other party.

Considering that the definition of family has evolved in the last century, it is essential to clarify the term.  It is also important to point out that the words “therapist” and “counselor” will be used interchangeably even though, in practice, definitions are different, i.e., duration of time and diving into history to identify the causes of conflict.  I would venture to say that most modern family therapist/counselors define “family” as anyone who plays a long-term supportive role in one’s life, which may not mean blood relations or family members in the same household.  As suggested earlier, human relationships are essential for survival.

As I venture along this new path, I discover the need to better define “divorce” as a “caregiver breakup.”   Divorce is commonly known as a legal dissolution of a marriage by a court.  For the purposes of this blog, I define “caregiver” as a biological parent who regularly cares for their biological children.  The distinction between divorce and caregiver breakup is made to press the point that, though couples may legally disconnect from one another, they do not detach from their children and parents often struggle to reconstruct a new family unit without the full-time assistance of the other biological parent or extended family.

As biological parents continue to address the necessities of their growing children, whether they are in the midst of divorcing or domestic partnership break up, they experience several social factors of influence that are pertinent and need to be taken into consideration when working with a family in counseling or mediation.  These factors significantly contribute to how parents continue to meet caregiver demands and thus are worthy of examination.

Social factors directly influence or affect lifestyles of any family and directly impact the lives of families undergoing significant change, i.e., caregiver breakup. Religion, ethnicity, extended family, physical status, economic status, education, location, life partners, children and political systems are just a few of the social factors noted to be of significant influence. Other social factors may include family life, school environment, violence on TV or in the home, weak or strong social ties (such as a lack of reliable friendships), socioeconomic status, neighborhood (clashing or cohesiveness of cultural norms), education level obtained, poor social influences (such as gang behavior), societal norms and forces (such as farming community versus inner-city), and religious significance.

As indicated earlier, these social factors are worthy of examination in counseling and mediation, but several questions need reflection.  What is family counseling? What is family/divorce mediation? What is the purpose of each? What are the various models used in each of these family interventions?  What is the measure of effectiveness in helping to resolve problems within the family unit?

Counseling is a series of conversations between a client and a counselor that focus on specific problem areas in the client’s life. Steps are taken to assist the client in addressing and solving those problem areas.  The problems are discussed in the present tense, but also include the role of past experiences and how these experiences impact the decisions made in the present.  In family counseling, the sessions focus on reducing distress and conflict by improving the interaction between various family members who are affected by the designated problem. This type of counseling views problems as patterns of communication between family members that need adjusting, as opposed to viewing problems as residing in one or more of the family members. Powell & Batche (1997), cite the need for improved communication and reduction of conflict which they refer to as “strength-based treatment.”

In comparison, mediation is a conflict resolution process wherein a mutually acceptable third party intervenes in a conflict or dispute between two or more individuals who wish to improve their relationships, enhance communication, use practical problem-solving skills to reach a mutual and voluntary agreement relating to the contested issues.  The mediator has no authority to make binding decisions for the parties. (Moore, C., 2014).

Families enter into family therapy for a multitude of reasons as are those interested in mediating conflicts within their relationships. Potential causes for counseling include child behavior problems in school or at home; significant trauma or change that impacts the entire family; unexpected or traumatic loss of a family member; adjustment to the blended family; domestic violence; divorce; and parental conflict.

The rationale for mediation between parties often includes divorce and parenting conflicts.  Domestic violence is found to be a significant contributor to divorce and parental conflict but, according to Folberg, Milne, Salem (2004), there are factors of opposition and thorough screening is necessary to determine if the mediation process is “safe, fair and voluntary” (p. 312).  There are several models of family and divorce mediation and numerous family therapy models.  But there are three models, i.e., Systemic Family Therapy Model and elements of both Facilitative and Transformative Mediation Models, that I have examined and found to be similar enough that blending could be possible thus creating the new form of working with families in practice.  In these models, the therapist tends to take a neutral stance, but often points out factors that influence the conflict/problems thus acting as an evaluator and facilitator with hopes that the conflict transforms into something constructive.

The Systemic Model, based on the assumption that family members mutually influence one another, is grounded in a sociocultural process and evolves over multiple generations. (Walsh, 2011).  It focuses on uncovering family games, secrets, and botched attempts to solve problems.  It examines the meaning of the family’s behavior and the driving purpose of their interaction/communication, in other words, what is happening on a level of awareness that has yet to be examined but is influencing the ongoing conflict within the family unit.  Power is not attributed to one particular family member as the focus is on what is going on between the members as opposed to what is going on inside the family members. (Selvini-Palazzoli, Boscolo, Cecchin, & Prata, 1980).  The purpose of the intervention is to “interrupt vicious cycles and promote virtuous cycles” thus contributing to problem resolution. (Walsh, p.154).

The Facilitative Mediator is often called the “orchestrator…which implies guiding people through a communication process in which the parties’ voices, thoughts, feelings, and ideas are the important factors.” (Folberg, Milne, Salem, p. 30).  This model is process oriented; communication focused, interest-based and client-centered. (Folberg, Milne, Salem, p. 32-33).  As per Folberg, Milne, and Salem; conflict is most importantly about people’s interactions with one another as human beings, and it takes emotional maturity and willingness to hold oneself accountable and also refrain from placing judgment on others when things get tough.  Accountability and vulnerability are noted in Brene Brown’s book, “Daring Greatly.”  Browns suggested that doing so can positively transform our lives as parents and leaders in our community.

The Transformative Model addresses the “interactional crisis itself and is not limited to problem solving and satisfaction of interests.” (Folberg, Milne, Salem, p. 55).  It is a process through which a mediator assists the participants in changing the quality of their conflict from negative and destructive to positive and constructive (Folberg, Milne, Salem, p. 59).  Conflict often spirals and affects the experiences of self and others wherein beliefs, values systems, and individual ideas are all challenged.  I like to think that the role of the mediator and counselor is one of a “peacemaker” who, with the cooperation of the parties, works to shift and transform the conflict into something constructive and positively empower for both sides.  The ability to remain open and responsive is vitally crucial because conflict is not static, but changes with each episode of intervention.

In all three models, of counseling and mediation, it is essential to set the stage by determining the appropriateness of the strategy, clarifying the goals, defining the roles in session, and most importantly building rapport.  Regardless of the model utilized, I will not attempt to sell them on the problem-solving strategy, and nor try to convince them to use it. But instead, I will tell them how it (counseling/mediation) works for solving problems, answering questions and allow the participants to decide for themselves if it is the right approach.  I will empower the participants to become change agents via examining their willingness to be accountable and restorative in their attitude.  How else can people decide what is best for them if they do not know what is possible and how it might be of benefit?

I am proposing that the use of these models; combining the one counseling model and two mediation models, could promote a shift in how conflicting parties work through their issues and possibly transcend their historical perspective of self and other.  I may have the makings of a ‘therapeutic mediation hat.’  This form of practice would not specifically address participant pathology as is indicated by the authors of “Divorce and Family Mediation” (p. 103). It would assist the participants in reframing old views, beliefs and communication styles that have failed to help the persons in conflict develop a practical problem-solving strategy that lasts throughout the life of the new family construct.  Thus fitting the term “peacemaker” into the formula seems acceptable to me.

In conclusion, I believe the position of a peacemaker is one of willingness to examine one’s faultiness; to understand that the ultimate goal of transcendence is not to restore (to its original) but to create a new way of dialoguing over differences from which growth can occur; to love unconditionally, without corrosion or manipulation; and to understand that the conflict between our clients is not ours to forgive as it stands as a barrier to their understanding of one another.  The need for self-examination is of utmost importance to allow for the vulnerability of self and others. Shame is full of secrecy, silence, and judgment which in turn contributes to conflict.  Therapeutic Mediation is about entering truthfully and with compassion into the disputes of others in order to assist the party in locating a place of fairness and caring.  Hopefully, we will eliminate the tendency of those in conflict to desire control which often leads to fear, secrecy, and perfection-seeking.  As I travel the path of a peacemaker, I agree to enter into a temporary relationship with those in conflict. The clients are in some form of relating to one another and, are typically in pursuit of knowledge, of respect, of caring, of good fit within their community and to share life experiences.  I will assist my clients in conflict to reframe their perspective and arrive at a new place of understanding and acceptance in their relationship to one another. We can only hope to create a space for enrichment and, hopefully, transcendence.

A final word, the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus stated, “No man (woman) ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s (she’s) not the same man (woman).”


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