Thanksgiving is always a very special holiday for us. Last fall, as in the past, almost the entire family gathered for turkey and all the traditional dishes. We were blessed with the attendance of six of our seven grandchildren…all 13 and younger. We sat in the kitchen as the turkey roasted when the grandkids arrived with scissors, colored pencils, and paper. They made 12 small pumpkins- one for each place around the dinner table. When we finally sat down to eat, Anna announced that on the reverse of each paper pumpkin was a message that we all should, in turn, read out loud. They ranged from “you are braver than you think” to “never give up.” When it came to my turn, I read, “Never trip on what is behind you.” I had been struggling with the topic for this column, but there it was offered by our grandchildren on the back of a paper pumpkin!
My task as a mediator is to help parties in conflict find common ground through a confidential conversation. Each party has the opportunity to share its position. The mediator is not a judge. We do not decide the outcome or prescribe a settlement. The beauty of mediation is that power is vested in the parties themselves. They are in complete control of the outcome, not a judge or a jury. The parties also have considerable flexibility in designing the conditions of the settlement. A judge or jury can only decide on a very narrow question with a very narrow answer. For example, in a case where money is owed, the judge may decide that, in fact, it is due to the other party. The challenge remains for the owed party to collect. In mediation, a payment plan that is acceptable to both can be created.
As I guide the mediation conversation, I often recognize that the parties are stuck in the past. In all fairness, reviewing the circumstances that brought them to mediation is an important part of the process, but it also can be a trap. The best way to design a helpful settlement is to look forward and imagine how the situation (or life) would be different once the issue is settled. In other words, “Never trip on what is behind you.” My task as a mediator is to allow some time to review the circumstances that brought the parties to this point but then move the conversation toward finding a way forward. That settlement will not be perfect for either party, but it will provide closure and allow both to move on with their lives. That is something for which everybody can be thankful.
Steve Forrer, the former dean, and vice-chancellor of the University of Maryland Global Campus, is currently a mediator for the Maryland District and Circuit Courts. Questions can be submitted at www.doncastermediation.com/contact for Steve to answer in this column. He also accepts private mediation.