Can mediation help?

Can Mediation help?
By Philippa Johnson
One of the most difficult things about divorce and separation is the uncertainty and confusion people
feel. Mediation can help you work out what your options are. Sometimes none of the options will be
especially good ones from your point of view and that can be a difficult and unhappy thing. However,
once you know what your real choices are you can start to take control back in your life and decide
on the choice that seems to both of you to be the best one for your family overall. Making things
better is a good goal.
How does family mediation work?
Mediation is a sort of a structured conversation, in which a professional helps people to discuss
difficult things in a safe space. A qualified mediator will keep the discussion focused on the important
issues and will encourage you both to think about the future rather than the past. As a family you
have probably had a great many difficult conversations over the years, especially recently, and you
may be used to conversations that make things worse rather than better. The mediator is there to help
you have a very different sort of conversation that will make things better. It often helps to set your
own ground rules for the conversation – what is or isn’t going to help both of you to talk to one
another in a positive way.
What do people talk about in mediation?
•It really helps to go to your first mediation knowing what is important to you. Try to keep an
open mind about what the practical solution might look like but identify the questions that you
believe need answering. These will be unique to your family, but might include, for example:
“how can we protect our children from all the adult stuff?”, “where will we both live”?, “how am
I going to pay the bills?”
•You will both have an opportunity to explain what you think the important issues are. It is very
important that you both listen carefully to what the other person is saying. In particular you both
need to explain to the other person what things are making you anxious about the future – what
you are most frightened of happening – and to identify anything that you believe will improve the
situation for both of you.
•Try to think about what you would believe would be a good outcome for the family at some
time in the future – in six months’ time or a year’s time or in two years’ time. Often, people have
remarkably similar ideas about what a good outcome would look like in the future. In all your
discussions with your ex-partner keep that good outcome in mind as a goal and try not to do
anything that will make that good outcome less likely.
•You may have important questions – the mediator can’t give you advice about your individual
situation but they can give you information about the way the courts approach divorce and
separation and suggest places you can go to find out more. They are there to help you to make
decisions, although not to make decisions for you. If you want to understand more about the legal
background to divorce, have a look at which has a
collection of useful guides.
•If you have financial issues to discuss, you will need to provide each other with the important
financial information so that you can understand what your real financial choices are – you can
decide between yourselves that something isn’t important to you as a family, but you will need to
show each other all the information you have about your income, your property, your savings,
investments and pensions and any loans or debts. You can find some useful free advice on how to
do this, including a budget planner at
•You will also need to understand what you spend your money on so that you can work out a
budget going forward. The mediator will record all the information provided in a document,
which you will sign once it is ready and which both of you can use outside the mediation,
including in court.
•If you have children arrangements to discuss, you will need to gather together the important
information that impacts on them so that you can understand what your real choices are. If you
are feeling overwhelmed, have a look at which should give you some useful ideas.
•There is an expectation that children aged 10 and above will have an opportunity to talk to a
mediator about what they think is important, unless there is a special reason not to send them an
invitation. What they think can then be fed into your discussions – you are still the parents and it
is your responsibility to make decisions, but knowing what your children think and feel about
their situation is likely to help you to make better decisions.
How do we move from talking to making decisions together?
The next stage involves exploring the options that are in practice open to you – these will depend
very much on your personal circumstances and what is important to your family. You will probably
both find it helps if you have a full and honest conversation about each option, including the ones
that you don’t like very much. Make sure you think about all of the practical options rather than
rejecting or accepting an option quickly.
Talking through the options will often mean going away and finding something out. Sometimes
talking through the options will involve inviting someone else into the mediation room, an expert or
an adviser. Sometimes talking things through will help you both transform an option from one that
really doesn’t work for one person to one that works for both of you, by changing one element.
Sometimes, understanding why someone doesn’t like a particular option helps the other person to
come up with a different solution that works better.
A solution will never be forced on you so please don’t worry that just discussing an option leaves you
vulnerable. Working your way through to a clear understanding of your options isn’t easy but there is
a clear pathway and once you have started down it, each step will take closer to your goal.
•Try to identify some independent standards for what is sensible, fair and reasonable – one of the
best independent standards is whether or not the solution is reciprocal – would you accept the
solution you are suggesting if you were the other person?
•Try to let go of the idea that you have a monopoly on good sense, fairness and reason. Accept
responsibility for your own feelings and your own part in the disagreement – no-one is right all
the time. Try not to use language that suggests that you understand your family situation or what
the children feel and that the other person does not.
•If the conversation is not going well, try not to react. Anything which pushes you back into the
old patterns of conversation will probably get in the way of finding a fair solution. Instead ask
yourself and the other person what you can do to make things better.