I was delighted to be invited by my friend and fellow mediator, Louisa Whitney at LKW Mediation to have a conversation about our experiences of mediation during this pandemic. Louisa is the queen of online mediation. Louisa is also a fellow former family lawyer who now runs her own practice so we have a lot in common and its always energising to chat to her about our passion for mediation and the clients who work with us in the process.
Louisa – I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on my experiences of offering family mediation during the global pandemic and really wanted to chat this through with another experienced mediator. I have been feeling anxious this week about the increasing numbers of COVID cases and having just started going back to some meetings in person (albeit with safeguards in place). One of the great things about mediation is having a support person (called a PPC – Professional Practising Consultant). I approached my friend and fellow mediator, Clare Madeline, to have a conversation about our experiences of mediation. We’re both PPCs so the blog may also give you a flavour of what conversations around mediation may feel like in the peer support sessions offered by PPCs.
I feel like I’ve ridden a rollercoaster since March with everything going completely online and trying to help clients with a variety of issues – some of which have been created by COVID like the challenges of co-parenting where one parent is shielding, or in a high risk job. I’ve noticed some changes in the way clients approach mediation too with it being online like wanting to arrange sessions more quickly and to move forward more quickly. It has felt at times like the lack of certainty in other areas of life equates to a need for quicker and greater certainty in the areas you can control. What have you particularly noticed about offering mediation since March of this year?
Clare: Yes, the rollercoaster is perfectly apt I think for describing these last 6 months. Terror at the state of the world arising from this dreadful virus and at other times elation at adapting, surviving and managing to keep offering the valuable service that clients need more so than ever. My first response to this virus was worry for the clients who were just embarking on their mediation process and coming to terms with their separation. How would it be for them? Would the stresses and strains of coronavirus lead to more conflict or would some reconnect? How would they cope in an already fractious household? How could I best support them, whilst keeping safe myself and supporting my own family?
Connection is a basic human need. We’ve all been asked to avoid as far as possible interacting with others during this pandemic. That’s just not possible in a divorce or separation. Clients have often lost the one person they may have relied upon to meet their financial, practical and emotional needs. They need information, support, a shoulder to cry on and an outlet for emotions to be processed away from the family home or the ears of their children. They need professional help to manage their grief and ways of resolving conflict, finding solutions to enable them to move forward with their lives. Most importantly they need to find the emotional energy to best support their children. Feeling stuck at home is unhealthy and coronavirus demanded us to be at home if at all possible, living with uncertainty. A relief from that, for some, is entering into a process of mediation which gives them a safe, confidential space to talk.
I’ve found that clients, like us, have adapted. One couple remarked that lockdown helped them because there was nowhere for them to escape to. The pubs weren’t open so the emotional crutch of a drink with friends or strangers at a pub wasn’t there. The relief found in going to work and being away from the home was not possible. They had to talk and try and find a way through dark times. They spoke about walks out of the house together where they were able to chat about how they wanted things to be. This enabled me as their mediator to scoop them up from the good place they were in keeping communication channels open but offering a process which would enable them to work through the minutia of how they might achieve a separation when, understandably, they both had differing views as to how they wanted the future to look. They both felt if they had tried to have the ‘difficult’ conversations together, all communication would have broken down.
I’ve found that the uncertainty of living with this virus and not knowing the outlook has meant that clients have been more reflective and have shown empathy and understanding for each other, giving each other a bit more time and patience completing financial forms for example than they may have pre coronavirus. A refocus on staying well and looking after loved ones and the safety, emotional, social and educational needs of their children has brought a sense of solidarity to protect and make the right decisions. I agree with you though that, although we all were forced to slow down initially to come to terms with the changes in our lives, months into this pandemic this has now translated in a real sense of urgency and need for clients to be able to move forward quicker than perhaps they would have done. If the family home has unexpectedly sold, despite fear that it would not sell in a pandemic or one or both have been able to find a new home which they are excited to move forward with has been a helpful motivator in trying times.
I’ve found that online mediation has worked. In the window of time that we meet online, there is a space of calm professionalism where difficult discussions can take place and boundaries can be set to help both navigate a way forward. Clients have adapted to online and found ways to make it work such as one being in the home and another going into their place of work for their mediation sessions to give each other space during and after their meetings. During this period clients have been able to resolve their conflict, work towards joint solutions, sell houses and focus on the ever changing needs of their children. There has been a greater understanding of emotional well being and mediation upholds the principle of kindness in that it asks both to have an understanding of the others needs and how they may perceive things differently. It respects the need for parents to be as well as they can be, physically and emotionally, providing an outlet for the inevitably difficult decisions couples face when they separate.
I’ve found that the scope for mediation has widened. This pandemic has created uncertainty and with that there are many areas which don’t have an easy answer such as valuing assets in a changing economy, family scenarios which could not have been foreseen such as unexpected holiday quarantines, key workers making decisions as to how best their children should be schooled, safety of members of the wider, extended family who may be vulnerable and arrangements which have not been tried and tested previously. So, in essence there has been so much more to talk about and the value of mediation for clients who are feeling alone and fearful to be able to talk and work through their feelings and seek a process which offers them a way forward, has never been greater.
Louisa: I agree with what you’re saying particularly about the need for human connection and the effect the pandemic restrictions have had on this. I think it’s interesting too how separating couples have been forced to try to resolve things in a way that they perhaps might not have been beforehand. As you say the lack of escapism can mean hard choices have to be faced head on. Equally I’ve also found clients for whom this has been too much and where emotions have spilled over into some unpleasant exchanges and, in some very difficult situations, the police having to attend to put a stop to some ugly conflict. This is, of course, a horrible situation that nobody wants and I think would have been awful for any children involved – especially those not able to go into school to a safe space with a trusted teacher, or friend to talk to during lockdown. The challenge then is to keep offering mediation to help them talk things through calmly, whilst also not doing anything that might inflame an already tense and difficult situation. I agree that one person leaving the home to attend meetings and giving each other space after the meeting can be helpful.
It’s also interesting I think that in a world where so much has been uncertain that clients want to have certainty by finding a resolution. This is definitely a balancing act, and I know many lawyers are worried about clients reaching agreements in haste without knowing what the changing landscape might result in 6 months or 2 years down the line. I have to say that this is one of the many things I love about mediation because our job is to provide information, to prompt clients to consider and reflect on things, but ultimately to help them reach a solution that feels fair and workable to them. They’re in charge and we’re not!
I also wonder how much the situation with courts has affected mediation in that the court system was already overburdened but with delays owing to the pandemic so many clients know they will struggle to resolve issues through the court in a reasonable time frame, does this makes them more open to other options like mediation – even in circumstances where they might (in ordinary times) have discounted it? There’s a lot to be said for being in charge of your own outcomes but I think for some separating couples when communication between them is stressful and tiring and wears them down they get to a point where they would almost rather someone else decides but the delays have made them have to continue to have ownership of their own situation. What are your thoughts, Clare?
Clare: Gosh yes, I think we can both understand having worked as family lawyers, the justified concerns about clients making decisions at a time of uncertainty. With our collective years of experience in legal practice, we bring another layer to the process. We can give them legal information. Ultimately though they are the ones who will need to live with whatever they decide, not their lawyers or a Judge. Mediation is a process. It incorporates a checking in exercise of exploring how any proposals may work in reality. They have time in between sessions to reflect. They are not bound. They can change their mind and discuss alternative options. They are able to seek valuable advice from pension advisors/ financial experts/ mortgage advisors. They have someone neutral with them to help them fully digest their options. For many mediation clients, the need for closure to bring an end to a traumatic period of their lives outweighs living in limbo, waiting for the world around us to settle and for the economic picture to be more certain. If it works for them, as long as they are informed and able to understand the bigger picture, then our job is done. There is no greater job satisfaction than knowing a couple have worked hard to find a tailor made solution and can move forward without harbouring any ill feeling and can focus entirely on recovery.
The reality of court is far different to what the media likes to present to couples. According to the news/ tv outlets you go to court and it gets resolved just like that! We know that the system is feeling the strain and many of the reasons why clients choose court in the first place, because they fear they cannot resolve it themselves and think the court will bring a quick conclusion, is not working in the way they hope. Most are waiting months for their applications to be listed, court hearings are being cancelled at short notice with no regard to the practical and emotional impact this has on someone who has been preparing for weeks/ months to attend. It goes on and the emotional and financial costs escalate.
There are no long waiting times for mediation. It is dynamic. It is flexible. You can choose your mediator to best suit your needs. It is bespoke and can adapt easily to the needs of the couple. It is by no means easy and takes courage but ultimately it achieves far more than any court process could. It enables the conflict which often remains unanswered in a legal process to be addressed which is far better for the long term survival of co parenting relationships and the ability to work together to the people most important to them – their children.
Louisa: Don’t get me started on how differently the court process (and indeed most aspects of divorce and separation) are portrayed on TV and in the media. That’s a separate blog in itself! I completely agree with what you say about mediation – but then I would wouldn’t I! Thank you for chatting with me.
Louisa runs her own mediation practice in Dorking, Surrey. For more information about her services you can have a look at her website www.lkwfamilymediation.co.uk