Monthly Archives: October 2017

Fight, Flight, Divorce and Magic Wands

Clients usually attend family mediation sessions face to face. They are asked to listen carefully to one another and to be open and honest. When people are in conflict their instinct is to fight and protect themselves or to flee; ‘the fight or flight response’ – click here for a short video explanation. When people feel they have to fight to protect something important to them, they become positional and compromise goes out of the window. They defend their position come what may – even when that stance is actually detrimental to them. Conflict often triggers defence mechanisms that are counter productive to resolution of dispute. This then denies people the opportunity to accept their separation and move forward in a positive way.

Fight Flight Divorce and Magic Wands Focus Mediation Blog

Mediators and magic wands

A mediator doesn’t have a magic wand – if only! We help conflicted people to stop dwelling on the past and to concentrate on their future. We enable them in turn to each express and listen to their needs and concerns. Conflict usually arises out of miscommunication or a lack of communication. When there’s no communication at all it’s easy to make incorrect assumptions. Understanding others and in turn being understood is a basic human need. The best way to understand someone is to listen to them. When conflicted people communicate, they often don’t feel safe enough to fully listen. Instead they may try to shout each other down or formulate a defensive reply. Mediators create a safe and neutral environment. It’s their role to make sure the communication is fair and balanced. If one person struggles to express themselves or doesn’t feel heard, the mediator will ask questions to help everyone in the room to better understand how that person is feeling. They will reflect back what they have heard or summarise to ensure they have fully understood.

A case study – a separated husband and wife

A client attended his first joint mediation session in full ‘fight or flight’ mode. He angrily told his wife that he would make sure she became penniless if she tried to take his children away from him. He said he would enter her home whenever he wanted to and see them and she couldn’t stop him. If she tried he would stop child and spousal maintenance – even if it resulted in a Judge sending him to prison. I was shocked and had not expected this. I meet clients separately prior to any joint session to understand their concerns and identify issues. When I met him he was very sad about the demise of his marriage. However, he told me that his wife was a good mother and he wanted to remain amicable for the sake of the children. I needed to find out what had happened between then and now.  He was clearly fighting to protect something sacred to him – his relationship with his children. I spoke to him alone. He said he hadn’t seen his children that weekend as agreed as his wife had said that they were unwell. He didn’t know if she was telling the truth. He had told her he would come to her home and spend the day with the children. She had said no and a huge argument ensued.

Before they could continue with the joint mediation session, he clearly needed sufficient time to calm down from his stress response to his fear of losing his children. He couldn’t listen to his wife when he was that anxious. I made him a hot drink and gave him the time he needed for his heart beat to regulate and his breathing to return to normal. I also acknowledged how painful it was for him to no longer live with his children.

When he re-entered the room with his wife he apologised to her. He felt calmer and I encouraged him to open up and tell her about his fears surrounding child arrangements. He was able to show genuine vulnerability instead of lashing out and making threats. His wife reassured him that she would never harm his relationship with the children and that she knew that the children needed him just as much as they needed her. She said she needed to establish new personal boundaries now they had separated and that she didn’t feel comfortable at this stage with his spending a whole day in her home. He said that when she didn’t let him come to her home, he began thinking about fathers who lose contact with their children and he began to panic. In the past he had always been there to comfort the children when they were ill. His wife was able to hear and appreciate how difficult it had been for him. He began to understand she needed her own space at home. They went on to make child arrangements that they were both comfortable with and which worked well for the children. If the conflict had been given more space to escalate then it would have undoubtly caused more harm to the parents and their children.

Why does mediation work?

So simply put – mediation is a safe space for people to drop their guard and open up to one another. It’s at times awkward, emotionally draining and it requires courage and commitment. However, it’s tried, tested and it works. Separated couples have often stopped listening to each other or trying to understand or be understood. Mediation helps people to understand each other better. Only when we begin to understand how someone else feels, can we begin to help them understand how we feel. Mediators separate the people from the problems. We help people to stop blaming one another and we enable them both to together focus on finding possible solutions that work for each of them. So despite the lack of magic wands in mediation, when mediation works (and it often does) the simplicity of clients understanding each other and feeling understood as a means of resolving conflict, actually feels rather magical.

Call us on 01908 231132 or Email: info@focus-mediation.co.uk for further information or to book a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM). Read more about family mediation (including our client testimonials) at  www.focus-mediation.co.uk 

The Bottom of the Rollercoaster – and what happens next in life

Sometimes in life we suddenly see something and realise that until that moment we have not understood it at all. I had one of those moments when someone described the rollercoaster of grief – because that is what the pain of separation can feel like. This image describes the emotional journey people take through grief – starting with denial and shock, fear and confusion, through anger and blame, shame and anxiety to the depression and helplessness of the low point of it all. This is arguably the worst point, as there is sorrow without the distractions of blame and anger. It is a time of realisation and coming to terms with the new reality, even for someone who wanted the relationship to end, as there is still change and loss. It can be hard. What people don’t always realise when they are in this dark place is that there are more stages to come on their journey. The stage of dialogue and bargaining eventually arrive and then acceptance and a plan for a new future. They can and will go on; they will have a life to live and a future.

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In summary, when couples separate they – and indeed their children – experience grief, as they are living through loss. This is best described as a rollercoaster of emotions and the traditional processes that have evolved through the decades to ‘help’ couples resolve their differences are wholly unsuited to actually resolving anything. This is because they are adversarial and tend to promote discord and holding on to extreme positions. Court proceedings may feel deeply attractive to the angry blaming person, as they offer an apparently legitimate outlet for their fury. By contrast mediation is an opportunity to listen, to try and understand each other, be mutually respectful and compromise. If you’re mad as fire, this will be unappealing. I’ve lost count of the number of clients when hearing about mediation and what it can achieve, say firmly: ‘Well that won’t work. My ex is very unreasonable. There’s no point in even trying to sort it out.’

But here’s the thing, no one ever said to me that they wouldn’t mediate because they were unreasonable. And here’s another thought – people do arrive at the stage of being ready to bargain and talk. They will want to sort it out and move on. It happens. It may be in the middle of court proceedings, it may be some other time, but when you get to that point, suddenly all the fighting and messing about seems utterly pointless, a complete waste of time and money. That is a great time to mediate, because mediation is fast and effective and you will get where you need to be surprisingly quickly. Everything can be sorted out, agreed and put behind you, you can move on from the conflict of the past and through dialogue and bargaining to acceptance and to a new and brighter future. You will have come up the other side of the rollercoaster and will be able to look back with relief on the journey you have accomplished – and be glad it is behind you. Nothing is so focused on getting you both to that point as mediation. Think about it.

Call us on 01908 231132 or Email: info@focus-mediation.co.uk for further information or to book a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM). Read more about family mediation (including our client testimonials) at  www.focus-mediation.co.uk 

Pensions in divorce mediation – raspberries, apples & a pot of pips!

Pensions are often the most important assets to consider on divorce – and can easily be the most valuable. Separating couples are understandably worried that they:

  • Won’t understand
  • Won’t have enough
  • Won’t be competent to make good choices

The good news is all our mediators dealing with financial cases on divorce are lawyers and familiar with all types of pensions, some have a nerdish fascination with pensions – and all can help you understand them better. Having enough pensions is a different problem!

OK – let’s take an intelligible overview. Imagine pensions are all fruits and have different intrinsic qualities and values per kilo. For kilo read per £1.

pension blog

Raspberries: Usually the most expensive pensions are final salary, sometimes also called defined benefit.  It helps to know the terms – as I think people shut down when they hear a lot of unfamiliar language and actually it sounds worse than it is. Pensions are not rocket science!  Anyway, defined benefit pensions give top quality pension income that continues for your lifetime and increases with inflation or latterly the cost of living. They may be based on your final salary or more recently your career average income. However long you live you keep getting the money – these pensions give you the right to an income for life.  These are usually the best fruit to have and they are getting rarer for younger people, who often cannot join these schemes, which are mostly now frozen.  This means closed to new members and gradually winding down over time and replaced with cheaper pensions.  Some people are members of several pension schemes in their job – the older being the most generous and valuable, and the most recent the least valuable, as affordability issues have forced changes to schemes that are cheaper to run. The level of pension income reflects the number of years you have worked and contributed to the pension scheme, the terms of the scheme and rate of accrual.

Your raspberries can be unfunded promises payable from future taxation like the Police Pension or the NHS or may be funded with investments – which may or may not be enough to meet the pension’s promises – more about this below.

Granny Smiths – the apples of pensions: These are the most common pensions and they are sometimes called money purchase and also defined contribution, but it’s the same thing. These pensions are basically a pot of money invested in the stock-market, government bonds and even sometimes property, but they are all based on money and this means they go up and down in value. You can also run out of money – it won’t necessarily last for your lifetime – you should pace the withdrawal cautiously if you don’t want to run out of money. The level of pension income depends on the amount of money in your scheme and how much you take out. If you took out a twentieth of the value each year, you’d probably run out of money, depending on your age at retirement, when you die and the investment returns on the pension fund and charges.

Some pensions are a pot of pips: OK I knew that would grab you! So some pensions are underfunded – this means that the funds that were set aside to pay out on these promises are not enough to pay the promised pension benefits.  Some of these underfunded schemes are working hard to get up to scratch and pay out in full – and some can’t do that and instead pass into the government’s Payment Protection Fund (PPF). The PPF will pay out less than the original pension promises – but at least you get something and there are special rules about this. Sort of a sack of potatoes really, not as good as the raspberries you were expecting!

This is a simple rather jokey introduction to pensions – but there seems to be an unalterable rule that people very rarely have enough pensions to meet their retirement needs – and most people put off doing much about this until rather late in the day. At least we can reassure you that we can help you understand your pensions and options – even if we can’t do anything about putting more in the pot!

Call us on 01908 231132 or Email: info@focus-mediation.co.uk for further information or to book a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM). Read more about family mediation (including our client testimonials) at  www.focus-mediation.co.uk 

Co-parenting

Warring parents make peace

I mediated child arrangements between a mother and father – I’ll call them Jill and John. John hadn’t seen his 4-year-old son for 7 weeks. He said he had never experienced such emotional pain. He was agitated when I saw him alone at the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAMs) and even more so at the first joint mediation session with Jill. Jill was clearly distressed too, she suffered from anxiety and her panic attacks had escalated since the conflict between them.

I saw them apart for the first mediation session and I went between them working out what had gone wrong – but without them meeting. Jill feared a panic attack if they came face to face. During their shuttle mediation, I was able to identify issues and concerns and helped them get some insights into the conflict and how they played a part in it. They began to see each other’s perspective and to think about what they needed from each other to move forward. I was relaying their thoughts, fears and feelings – to create a shared understanding. Sometimes this type of mediation helps ease anxious clients into face to face mediation and in some cases it’s the only way to mediate.

Co parenting focus mediation blog

Background                                                                                                                                                       

Both clients were tearful at the joint session and worried about the effect their conflict was having on their son Sam. He was clingy and unhappy at school – not his usual confident self. John had asked his solicitor to apply to court for a child arrangement order – he didn’t think mediation would help and he worried it would just cause delay, he wanted a judge to tell Jill she had to let him see Sam – he wanted a court order.  His solicitor urged him to try one session before issuing court proceedings. These parents had hurt each other very much and were no longer able to speak. John used to collect his son every Friday from school and then he would bring him back to Jill’s home on a Saturday evening, but communication had deteriorated and each had a long list of examples when the other had been insensitive, selfish, controlling or hurtful. As is often the way, their accusations against one another were almost a mirror image. They were both feeling similar hurts and fears.

After a particularly unpleasant altercation about Sam, each issued ultimatums and John refused to return Sam to Jill, who said she could no longer trust John, and so she insisted contact took place in her home or at a Contact Centre. John wouldn’t agree to this and thought Jill was deliberately trying to damage his relationship with his son. Jill told me this was a temporary arrangement in a crisis so John would have to listen to her, but John was too angry to hear or accept this. Communication after this degenerated to angry text messages. “I’ll take you to court.” texted John “Go on – do it!” came the response.  John feared court was his only option – yet neither wanted to go to court.

Joint mediation session with Jill & John

After separate Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAMs) we started the joint mediation session in separate rooms. Each was willing to listen and be flexible – whilst being convinced the other would not and that they were wasting their time. I encouraged them to listen carefully to one another and to put their son’s needs first. I fed back what each was saying to the other in a calm way, which meant they could get the sense of what the other was saying instead of reacting in a panicky way to the other’s fury.  Anger simply escalates conflict so no one can understand what the other person is saying, as they are too flooded with emotion to hear. Their concerns when voiced by me seemed understandable. I was using mediation skills to improve communication, looking towards the future and not dwelling on the past – as it can’t be changed and people don’t agree what happened.

Mediators translate issues into understandable language. For example in a work place two colleagues had fallen out.  Ben said Sally was a slob and had turned their shared office into a dump. I’d focus on what Ben needed from Sally so they could share an office more harmoniously. I would reword what Ben said, removing personal insults, so Sally could understand Ben needed a tidy environment to work and I’d identify clearly understandable and specific problems, so Sally knew exactly what to do.  She would need to know Ben didn’t dislike her personally – but it was her dirty mugs in the kitchen and smelly food in the fridge that drove Ben mad. Then she could put that right and not feel rejected as a person. By removing the criticism and name calling the mediator re-focuses on needs, removes judgement and opens up a route to a more positive future.  Mediating some jointly formulated ground rules about the issues that were causing trouble would help.  As both parties have shaped these rules and agreed to them they are far more likely to keep to them than if they’ve been demanded and they feel ‘told’ and ‘bullied.’

Back to Jill and John; both said they had tried very hard at first to remain amicable for the sake of their son. We began exploring the issues and discussing what had worked in the past and what hadn’t worked so well. Then something happened halfway through the session which completely changed the dynamics. Jill asked John to come into her mediation room, so they could speak face to face. Jill was worried they wouldn’t get the agreement Sam so badly needed in separate rooms. They needed to be able to be able to talk to co-parent him – and she wanted me to help them to do that. I reminded her we could stop for a break or even to end the mediation at any time. John realised what a huge concession this was and he softened. He saw a light at the end of the tunnel – maybe mediation could help them move forward and co-parent again?  When they met in the same room he thanked Jill and then made a spontaneous and heartfelt apology. He said he was sorry for his part in what had gone wrong and then Jill said she had also made mistakes and they both accepted responsibility for their part in the conflict. This was a very positive start and a huge turning point.

Sometimes it just takes one person to show vulnerability or to be sorry to create the movement in mediation necessary for change. They began to talk and wondered how they had let the situation escalate. Why hadn’t they sat down and thrashed this out earlier on? They were both genuinely bewildered to start with – but then realised they were both too afraid and angry to back down. When a breakthrough occurs –which it often does in mediation – the solutions seem so simple and obvious. However, often couples stuck in conflict need some outside help from an impartial professional before they are able to understand and end the circular nature of their conflict. Mediation takes place in a safe and neutral environment – the mediator is truly impartial and does not take sides. Couples can signal hope of change by agreeing to attend.  They are helped to resolve problems and issues and to end their conflict instead of perpetuating it in a stuck way.

Jill and John had more work to do in mediation. However, they left the session with an arrangement for their son to see John very soon. They communicated with a newfound respect for one another and a determination not to fall back into old negative patterns of communication. They started to work towards creating new boundaries and shared understandings of how they could build a parenting alliance that they could work within safely and which would benefit Sam hugely. Realistically, this was never going to happen by accident – how could it? Mediation was the only way they could achieve this. I love my work and John and Jill went home smiling and relieved.

Call us on 01908 231132 or Email: info@focus-mediation.co.uk for further information or to book a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM). Read more about family mediation (including our client testimonials) at  www.focus-mediation.co.uk