Power Imbalance in Family Mediation

Atlanta APFM Trainers.2013This past weekend, I was one of 4 trainers for the APFM (Academy of Professional Family Mediators) advanced training on Power Imbalance in Family Mediation, which was held in Atlanta. It was a great learning experience for me, especially hearing Hilary Linton and Claudette Reimer from Toronto speaking on screening for domestic violence before the mediation process. This has always been a controversial area. Some professionals say you can’t mediate cases where there has been an incident of domestic violence. Other professionals say its offensive to the parties to quiz them on their relationship history and to ask detailed questions about possible domestic violence when it only occurs in a small number of cases. I thought that Hilary and Claudette found a good balance in emphasizing research that shows that domestic violence may be present in a significant number of cases – possibly even half; but also sharing research that shows that mediation is a better process for reducing the future risk of domestic violence than court is. Mediation calms the parties and when both parties are respected and supported in the process, they do better than they do in court – where the vulnerable person is at higher risk of violent retaliation by a desperate partner, who may over-react to being criticized and experiencing legal losses without being eased into them. I’ve always said that the adversarial process brings out the worst in high conflict people, as they can’t restrain themselves and they interpret everything extremely personally with “all-or-nothing” viewpoints about decisions they see as all-or-nothing about them. So a well-managed mediation may be the best opportunity to serve clients with these issues – so long as sufficient precautions are taken. And, of course, there will still be some cases that are not appropriate for mediation.

In terms of the pre-mediation screening process, I became convinced that we need to do more than most of us have been doing – especially because I believe that high conflict personalities and behavior are increasing in society and will therefore increase in mediation. However, I am thinking of integrating screening into “Pre-Mediation Coaching,” which I am already recommending in some high conflict cases. This avoids alienating fee-for-service clients who don’t want to spend an extra dollar, but may see the value in Pre-Mediation Coaching. I also appreciated hearing some new ideas for how to structure the mediation process to build in more protections for clients who have restraining orders or vague concerns.

We also addressed financial and parenting power imbalances. I appreciated learning from Rod Wells (APFM President) about “money personalities” and how different ones have different issues that can create power imbalances – and some strategies for dealing with them. I gave a short presentation and demonstration (with Rod as a financial neutral) of managing high conflict personalities in mediation – essentially learning to “dance” with their resistance, by calming them, focusing them on manageable tasks, educating them about consequences of various choices, and keeping the responsibility for decision-making clearly on their shoulders.

I’d tell you more, but I think you should just invite us to present this 2-day workshop in your city and/or attend future APFM conferences and trainings. That would be the best way to explain it – and to share the energy and satisfaction of truly helping clients who need assistance in calming down and staying out of court.