Winsom and I came out of the ex-council block of flats with huge smiles on our faces, and looked at each other delighted with our achievement. This had been quite a process! We are both volunteer mediators with Tower Hamlets Mediation Project and we had been dealing with this difficult and stressful mediation for several weeks now. Many times we thought of “throwing in the towel” but some kind of inner drive kept us trying to make another call to secure a visit. It had looked very bleak at times.
This particular gentleman didn’t seem to want mediation initially. There was a dispute with neighbours and there had been some angry threats thrown around.Our goal was to at least help people feel heard and calm the situation down. Mr. B- we cannot reveal his name due to confidentiality of the mediation process- seemed angry and believed he was justified in his actions. Truthfully he seemed angry at the world, including us. Finally, he had given us permission to visit him in his home. The transformation that occurred from the angry and verbally aggressive man that met us at the door to the friendly and joking fellow that we left was nothing short of amazing! The joint session with his neighbour didn’t happen but the anger and danger of violence was absolutely aborted. We had previously visited with his neighbours as part of the process and they also were keen to avoid any further conflict. We were so pleased. That is the reward of community mediation!
Winsom and I are two of the more than fifty mediators now volunteering with THMP. Tower Hamlets Mediation Project was setup through the coordinated efforts and vision of Irene Grindell (IGRC) in partnership with Global Law Firm Reed Smith as part of their Responsible Business Programme was THMP’s first client, benefiting residents in Tower Hamlets who could now access free community mediation and giving the newly trained mediators an opportunity to practise their skills.
This was, from the start, a collaborative effort, Reed Smith being instrumental, as well as the number of external volunteer mediators who joined the project when the project expanded.
THMP was invited to the LBTH anti-social behaviour panel which gave them the opportunity to offer mediation to other social landlords in the borough as well as the police. The role of professional mediators like Winsom and I was to support where the situation was not suitable for the very capable but less experienced Reed Smith mediators.
Many people look at mediation in terms of a win or lose goal. In community mediation, I see it in a different way. Many times, conflicts are deeply entrenched,especially when it has been on going for years, so the usual process of mediation, bringing people face to face to help them communicate is perhaps overly ambitious. If we can get both of the parties to meet us and talk about their “side of the story”, especially their needs, and we can help them to feel heard, and understood,people are often less resistant to finding a resolution. Mediation can help people get to a more conciliatory place where the anger, frustration and resentment are appeased, that IS a WIN. It means that they can move on with their life as opposed to being stuck in the conflict and letting it rob them of their life. Conflict will often do that, completely overtake someone’s waking thoughts and even dreams and brings undue stress, worry and insecurity.
The image that comes to mind is that of a small battle field where people are in continual skirmishes, back and forth, and after the individual sessions with the mediators, there may not be a “peace agreement” as such, but there is a TRUCE. And that has to be applauded and recognised. It means that the “sting” has been taken out of the conflict and that there is “relative peace”. When two or more parties have been “at war” for years, I would absolutely declare that a WIN.
IF PARTIES ARE WILLING
MEDIATION IS ALWAYS THE BEST OPTION
TO RESOLVE DISPUTES
If you enjoyed this article, or know someone who would be interested by it please feel free to share it.
John and Mary had been married 10 years, they had three children. Over the years the relationship had always been somewhat rocky but in the last three years, it had taken a turn for the worse. John had lost his job and Mary had become the sole earner for the family. Life as a stay-home dad proved difficult for John to adjust to. But Mary also found the situation difficult as she went to work daily and at her return would find waiting for her the chores that John had not thought to tackle.
The children were in school during the day and John would pick them up and take care of them till Mary came home. Slowly, however, something had crept up on him, a sort of paralysis, a negative mind-set about himself, as well as a tinge of jealousy that Mary was doing so well in the workplace – and the doubt that he would ever do as well again. As if to compensate for this, he had become more domineering in the relationship, especially with the household finances. The imbalance further taxed their already strained relationship until Mary just couldn’t cope any more! She had tried to help John with his confidence and self esteem. She supported him to look for work but eventually was worn out and burned out. She felt she had nothing more to give to the relationship.
At her request John reluctantly moved out, however he had no friends, no family and with no support, John’s behaviour became more vindictive, aggressive and obsessive. He had a need to punish Mary and inflict as much pain as possible.
John chose the legal route to take custody of the children away from Mary. This was the beginning of a terrible two years. Both lawyers did their best to WIN. Exaggerations and outright lies got mixed with a semblance of truth, and after a long and bitter battle, the judge decided the custody of the children would be shared. For them both, it felt like a defeat.
And whereas they had had somewhat of an understanding of each other before the proceedings began, now that they were going to HAVE to work together in co-parenting, they HATED each other.
Such a weak and difficult position to start a new page in their life as co-parents. Both were terribly wounded by the legal process, and whatever trust they might have had in the past towards each other, was now sorely in deficit. The words that were said during the court case, the exaggerated accusations, the depersonalisation of the court case, were hard to forgive and forget. It would hang forever between them.
The events will remain etched in both of their minds as “absolutely traumatic”.
It was shortly after John and Mary’s divorce that Peter and Sue found their relationship in trouble. Sue and Mary had been friends and Sue had been a pillar when Mary needed a friend. Now it was Sue’s turn to need support. She had found out that Peter was having an affair, a serious affair. They had two children and Sue had given up her much loved career and her independence to raise the children while they were still small. Peter was away a lot of the time for work and Sue was often home alone and lonely. She was devastated! And she was angry, resentful and SO angry! She asked him to leave and wanted to never see him again. Mary was there for her and was a listening ear to her friend. She couldn’t help but worry however about the divorce procedure. She was still scarred from her own divorce.
She had since become aware of a conflict coaching service for couples in their area. Sue was in no mood to make concessions for Peter but she knew very well the intense trauma Mary had gone through with the court case and after some pondering, she decided to call and book an initial coaching session for herself.
The session revealed itself very therapeutic. Sue talked about her marriage, her pain and the coach listened and listened some more, empathising and giving her time and space to unravel her emotions. People in pain can be extremely irrational. Sue greatly benefited from the initial coaching session and agreed to have another. After a few sessions, the validation and coaching she received from the couples’ coach enabled her to get to a place where she could look at her situation more rationally. By then, at the fore of her concern were the children. Now that her anger was somewhat abated, she realized that the children loved and needed both of them, and she cared about them too much to try and deprive them of their father. Not that she hadn’t thought of it when she was angry. But talking it over with the coach made all the difference. She recognised that Peter was a good dad, and however difficult it was to admit, she couldn’t deprive her children of his care.
The couple’s coach asked whether Peter would like to see her and he agreed. He also was distraught by the way things had turned out in his marriage. He was especially missing the children. He was struggling with feelings of guilt and ambivalence between his relationships. But he was determined he wanted an arrangement for the children. He would go the way of the courts if necessary but he was willing to give coaching a chance.
After a couple of sessions with Peter, and at the couple’s request, the coach set up a joint meeting. This was a meeting with a specific future focused agenda, where they could communicate about the specifics that were important to each of them. The conflict coach was merely a facilitator.
They both agreed that their primary concern was about the children. Sue felt that she was going to need to go back to work. Childcare needed to be arranged. Peter also, needed to make some big adjustments if this was to work. He realised how much he had leaned on Sue for the running of the household, and he was now considering taking the children part time.
The agenda had already been set with the help of the coach and both Peter and Sue were poised and sober throughout, although Sue struggled a few times and had to pause. The emotions were still raw, and in this initial joint meeting, they agreed on a temporary arrangement for Peter to have weekend visitation, to be reviewed a month later. In the meantime, Sue would be looking for work. In the next meeting, they both agreed to an alternate week parenting. Peter had to made some changes in his work and could now accommodate being a single parent every other week, with the assistance of some childcare.
Once the parental responsibility was agreed, it was easier to work on the rest of the issues. A specific plan was laid for financial responsibilities and communication about important decisions concerning the children.
The benefit of couples coaching in separations is that the outcomes are fully in the hands of the parties, not a judge, lawyers, or anyone else. The conflict coach is merely a facilitator. The parties decide and that is crucial. It is much more difficult to accept a decision that feels like a loss when it is “imposed” on you, as it is with a judge’s decision.
In the end, the decision they made was the same as the one their friend John and Mary were handed down by the judge but the difference in the process, the gentleness and “humanness” of the couples coaching process had made it possible for both of them to start healing from the onset and to lay a foundation for their future lives joined by co-parenting.
After seeing the tug-a-war and suffering both John and Mary went through in the divorce by going the legal route, they both felt an inner sense of relief that it had gone so well and they had passed the rocks and pitfalls of emotional early breakups with the support of a couple’s coach. It laid the foundations for clear communication in their co-parenting.
Break ups happen and if you have children they can be a very difficult experience to go through. Don’t be afraid to reach out for some support if you need it. Get in touch.
I had already begun to draft this article a week before the terrible events in Manchester came to rock our various communities in England and my heart is heavy as I endeavour to finish it. I hope it is clear that when I speak of reaching out across our communities, I do so with the utmost respect for the families caught in the Manchester atrocities, and the extreme difficulties they must be enduring in their pain and their grieving.
As a community mediator, a question is at the forefront of my mind, how will this atrocity affect our community cohesion? How do we avoid the backlash of the “you and them” attitudes, how can we continue to build our communities effectively? Manchester has shown us a beautiful example of a community coming together. However, in many parts of the country, there has been a rise of anger, hate speech and abuse towards a whole group of people.
Whenever I think of the beauty of multi-cultural communities, I am brought back to the years I spent in Lebanon where, before the war, you had a multi-religious community whose unity and neighbourliness was exemplary. This was perhaps helped by common middle Eastern values such as the importance of hospitality, and food. In a country of 4 Million inhabitants – less than ½ the population of London – were living together communities of Christians, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, as well as Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims, Druze then you also had Armenians, Palestinians, and Syrians. The over 40’s would often reminisce of the days before the war – war that lasted 20 years- when everyone was friends with their neighbours in this country 140 miles long by 50 miles. My friend Kamal, would tell me how when he was in school people didn’t know and didn’t pay attention to the religion of the other. There were very few signs of typical religious affiliation such as crosses around the neck or scarfs on the girl’s hair. I also loved to hear the stories from my elderly friend Mme BouKaram, who was from the south where many villages were mixed. They celebrated each other’s festivals, at Christmas the Muslims would bring Christmassy food to the house of their Christian neighbours and the reverse would happen at Eid, the Christians would bring dates or “tabouli” (a Lebanese salad) and brake the fast with their neighbours. This promoted a sense of appreciation and of respect of each other, simply as neighbours and fellow human beings sharing the same reality.
Unfortunately, this was not how I found Lebanon when I moved there in 1996, a few years after the 20-year civil war ended. The war had ravaged the unity that once existed and the togetherness of the communities. There was a sharp increase in religious identity as a show of belonging. The conflict had managed to destroy any sense of “togetherness” and respect of the other that the Lebanese reportedly had previously felt, as neighbours and citizens of the same country. This, the older generation sorely missed.
This hardening of positions is, in my opinion, what is dangerous, in our own communities, this gulf that seems to come between us, and this reject rather than acceptance of the differences. As a conflict resolution professional, I know that, on a personal level, this type of situation is not so difficult to resolve, it just takes communication. Communication will bring understanding and acceptance of the other, and often a willingness to find common ground. But how to expand that to the community level?
I was pondering on this when I came across a picture of a beautiful patchwork rug. The contrasts in the colours, the shades, the dark and the light, the bright and the mellow all serve to enhance the beauty of the rug.
Could we not look at our communities in that way? Allow the differences to enhance the community, recognise the goodness of the other, the value of the other?
I live in London in a very diverse community and it has been obvious, in my area at least, that unity and togetherness don’t happen by themselves. If people are left to their own …….they will often gravitate towards what is known and familiar to them. That is human nature. So how do we counter this natural cycle? Should we even try? In my opinion, it is worth the challenge.
On an individual level, awareness would need to come first, seeing and embracing the importance of our need to create links within our multi cultural communities, and not just across cultures but among age groups as well. Creating ties with just one person of another religion/culture/nationality will sensitise both individuals to the needs, problems and challenges of the other culture and create a bond that extends far beyond those two people.
On the community level, there needs to be initiatives by community leaders to provide events, celebrations and places for communities to come together and celebrate the good we find in each other. Food is a great facilitator to that effect, the sharing of food being a cultural norm in many cultures.
Much of the disputes in our communities have to do with noise, car parks, kids playing, stemming from everyday occurrences, nothing malicious or sinister, yet it can cause deep rifts between neighbours and often the cultural aspect of the other can be used as the extra weights in the balance that tips the conflict for the worse.
So my recommendation would be for community leaders to promote openness and ways where people can get to know each other. It has been proven that laughing together, as well as sharing food helps to break down the walls that separate people. Festivals, street parties, local activities, are all great avenues for people to mingle. But in the end, the most important step is the one each one of us can take to interact, to commit to doing our part in our own community and reach out to those around us, with curiosity, to learn about them and connect.