The Evolution of a Mediator

Is a mediator born with discretion or does it evolve?   It was my mother and father who started my career as a mediator, I think, when I was ten or eleven years old. My mother would be in the kitchen making dinner–hot, steamy, angry.

“You go tell your father…,” she would snarl. Dutifully, no choice in the matter, I would trot off to the den. Father reading his newspaper in his comfy chair. “Mom says … .” In the telling, I toned down what she had said.

“You go tell your mother…,” he would growl. Back to the kitchen, message toned down again. And so it went.

I went through stages during my teen years, as children do, thinking it was all his fault. Then I thought it was all her fault. Then, enlightenment came to me: they were consenting adults, in it together. They were both right; they were both wrong.

That’s the theory of “no-fault” divorce–-that between consenting adults, no outsider, following rules of evidence, can find exactly where the marriage went wrong, and how and why.

Another significant lesson: when I was 28, married with four children, I saw Rashomon on television. This title has become a word for events where you can’t know the truth because each witness tells a story contradicting the others. Each witness is entirely plausible.

In Rashomon, in 12th century Japan, a samurai and his wife travel through a forest. They are attacked by a bandit, the wife raped and the husband killed. The bandit, arrested, tells the court that he tied the samurai to a tree. He intended to rape the wife, but she in fact submitted. But she asked the bandit to release her husband so they can duel to the death to save her from shame of having two men know her dishonor.

The wife tells that after the rape, she freed her husband; he refused to look at her; she begged him to kill her. He looked at her with such loathing, she fainted, and when she came to, husband was dead.

The dead samurai speaks through a medium. He said that after he was captured and the wife raped, the bandit asked her to travel on with him. She agreed, and asked the bandit to kill her husband. The bandit was so shocked, he gave the samurai the choice of his killing the wife or letting her go. The woman ran off. The ghost samurai said he was set free, and killed himself.

Then a woodcutter who said he saw the whole thing tells another story.

And so psychologists speak of the “Rashomon effect.”

Likewise, the writer Luigi Pirandello wrote stories so devious the term “Pirandellian” has come to mean a sense of blurring between illusion and reality.

In an impressive lesson, I saw Helen Hays at the MacArthur theater in Los Angeles in his “Right You Are (If You Think You Are),” a story in three acts, the same time frame related by each of three people. As each reenacts the events, each is obviously telling the truth. But each story contradicts the others.

I have done the same. In one of those many “trainings” so popular in the 70’s, designed to tune up one’s psyche, an exercise was to tell, in a “dyad,” as they called two people together, one was to tell the other of an event in which one was wronged by other. I told my story of my ex-husband and my ex-best friend.

The next part of the exercise was to tell the same events, but in which one’s self was the person wronging the others. I did that. The young man I told these two versions to looked at me in shock. He was aghast. He looked horrified. He moved away; he avoided me thereafter.

How can you tell whose story is true? Each partner in the break-up has a story. Each is totally plausible. A rich field for writers. But irrelevant for mediators. The mediator is not a judge. In mediation, there is no need to judge.

The competent mediator is pleased a man can tell his story. The able mediator is pleased a woman will tell her story. They are both right. It doesn’t matter; there’s the business of taking care of children and dividing property to be concerned with.

But before deciding on a course of action, people get anxious about what the other is thinking of doing. When marital partners begin pulling away from one another, a strong sign of the growing distance is a loss of trust.

Each one is sure that the other one is about to set about some maneuver which will put one at a disadvantage. In acting on that perception of a threat, each party brings about that which they fear.

Actions may be intended as defensive, but the other spouse feels them as aggressive and unfair. She or he will respond in kind. Mutual destruction spins out of control. Lawyers can help it along. The adversary system assumes one is right, the other is wrong, and each side treats the other as an enemy in a winner-take-all fight.

A young woman told me of a long and expensive divorce from a short marriage where she and husband had signed a pre-marital agreement. She said she and the ex-husband met years later, talked and found out that neither had said what their lawyers had reported back and forth, which had created great conflict.

So tell your story directly, with the help of a mediator. Don’t let conflicting versions of “truth” lead you into conflict. How and why you got to this point matters little compared with what you will do with your future.

Judith A. Kaluzny

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