No one goes through life without conflict. Tensions, disagreements, and disputes often occur simply because people have natural differences. We differ in our likes and dislikes, in our personalities, in our beliefs, and in the way we approach problems. Many accept that conflict is inevitable, but don’t always realize that it can have a positive outcome.
When a conflict between people simmers quietly over time, it can lead to growing misunderstandings and bad feelings until it finally boils over and erupts. As painful and distressing as this is, the resulting confrontation can be an opportunity. When conflict is managed effectively, not only can the immediate issue at hand be resolved, but the underlying, original problems can be solved as well. This can ultimately lead to long-term change and growth and improved relationships.
In day to day life, most people work out the issues that cause conflict with others. Parents, for example, routinely mediate arguments between children. Sometimes a mutual friend or colleague can help disputing co-workers resolves their differences. But sometimes, we get stuck. Consider these scenarios:
Steve and Sally are trying to stay calm as the passing minutes turn into hours. It is 2:00 am, well past their 15 year old daughter’s curfew. And this is not the first time. They don’t know how things got so out of hand. Their emotions alternate between panic and rage. Becky has threatened to run away if they keep “trying to control her life,” she has stopped doing her homework, and lately she has even skipped school. She has come home drunk a few times, and grounding her hasn’t worked. She just screams “you can’t make me stay home” and storms out.
Anna stares blankly out her kitchen window. Today is her 70th birthday, but she doesn’t feel like celebrating. For 50 years she worked to build a business she could leave to her children. She had assumed that by now she would be retired and able to do the traveling and relaxing she had denied herself for years. But her sons, both of whom have joined the business, are fighting, and she’s afraid to leave. Their arguments over business decisions have turned personal, each accusing the other of being her favorite son.
When Bill died 4 years ago, he selected Maggie, the second of his four children, to manage the family trusts and investments and to take care of their mother, who was in failing health. The two youngest children, John and Martha, were relieved to avoid this burden, but Andy, the eldest, was furious. Even though Maggie was a professional in the field of finance, he didn’t trust her. Recently, their mother died, and it is time to divide the estate. But Andy is threatening to sue Maggie in court. And now John and Martha are furious, because it will take years for them to finally take possession of their inheritance.
In situations like these, and in many others as well, professional mediation can be helpful. Mediation is a process in which a neutral person helps those who are in conflict with each other negotiate their differences. When adults disagree about an issue that is important and emotionally charged, when their communication breaks down and misunderstandings and mistrust develop, they can often benefit from consulting a professionally trained mediator.
Most people think of mediation in the context of legal disputes such as divorce on the home front, or contract and labor disputes in the workplace, or even peace negotiations between warring countries. But a collaborative approach to dispute resolution with the help of a mediator can help in other relationships and situations as well, particularly in families. Here are some examples:
- Parents and their children – An obvious arena for conflict is between parents and teenagers, but conflicts arise with younger children as well which can benefit from mediation
- Adult children and their older parents – Even when children become adults and move away from home, important conflicts can happen, especially around major life stage transitions such as parents’ retirement, the arrival of grandchildren, estate planning, etc.
- Adult siblings – Sometimes adult siblings struggle over plans they must make for aging and ailing parents, or over plans following the death of a parent.
- Blended families – The remarriage of adults with children can create a host of conflicts, between parents and stepchildren, and among step-siblings which could benefit from mediation
- Divorced parents – Co-parenting from separate households can be especially challenging for divorced couples.
- United couples – And even couples who maintain their relationship can turn to mediation to assist in seemingly insurmountable conflict.
- Family businesses – Conflicts between relatives who are also trying to run a successful business together can carry great risk on many levels.
So how can mediation help? Mediators are professionals who have been trained in the theory, principles and techniques of basic mediation practice. They come from diverse professional backgrounds, including law, mental health, education and business. They often also have areas of special expertise, such as divorce, or labor disputes. The mediator is always neutral, and the process is voluntary and confidential.
The role of the mediator is to:
- Facilitate communication
- Promote mutual understanding
- Focus the disputants on their interests
- Seek creative problem solving
- Enable the parties to move beyond their blocks and reach their own agreements
Mediation often leads to a win/win outcome in which relationships that were stressed and fragile can rebuild and transform.
Rebecca Cohan is a Staff Social Worker at HRS. She has advanced training in mediation and extensive experience in helping couples, families and workplace associates resolve their conflicts.