Picture a middle-aged woman who is very worried that her elderly father is continuing to live in the family home when, in her view, the time has long passed since he has been capable of living there by himself. Next, visualize her father, a widower in his eighties, who is feeling pressured by his adult daughter to move into what he characterizes as an "old folks" home. Desperate because her father refuses to listen to her pleas, the daughter decides to seek help from a mediator.
The daughter learns that mediation involves two or more people who haven't been able to agree on a solution to their problem plus a mediator - an impartial third party who has no stake in the outcome of the mediation. The mediation process allows the people to express their feelings, clarify their assumptions about each other, clear up misunderstandings and find areas of agreement that can be incorporated into solutions that the people themselves create.
The daughter arranges for a mediation session with a local mediator. Her father reluctantly agrees to participate in the session only because his daughter is so insistent. The mediation takes place in a room at the mediator's office.
Anna Steele, the mediator, is at the head of the table. To her left is Harold Greene, the widower, slumped in his chair, obviously ill at ease. Tanya Ellison, Mr. Greene's married daughter, sits across from Mr. Greene, appearing worried and fidgeting with her hands in her lap.
Anna Steele: "One of the reasons I am here is to help you talk with one another about issues that you have found difficult to discuss. I will not take sides and I will help you to listen to each other. After you have talked and listened to each other and you have considered and discussed options for resolving your differences, I will help you put together an agreement based on your shared decisions. You may not be able to reach an agreement at this first meeting, which is all right, too, but hopefully you will."
Tanya Ellison: "I'm terribly upset because Dad just won't listen to me and realize that he's got to do something about his living arrangements. I love him dearly and I know that he simply can't continue to live at home alone any longer. He gets dizzy sometimes, he doesn't take his medications when he should and he doesn't eat the proper food. I'm awfully afraid that he may fall and hurt himself and no one will be there to help him. Living 600 miles away, I certainly can't be there when he might need me."
Harold Greene: "I don't know what Tanya's talking about. She talks like I'm nothing but a used up old man. The truth is I'm fit as a fiddle. I drive my car and I get out for walks three times a day. Just ask my neighbors. They'll tell you how spry I am. And when I need something, they're the first ones to help me. We've known each other for over 40 years and we trust each other because we've been through a lot of hard times together. The only way I'm leaving my home is when they carry me out feet first."
Tanya: "I know that Dad has a lot of friends in his neighborhood but they're getting old just as he is and they're not going to be able to live there indefinitely either. Ever since Mom died 10 years ago, Dad has hung on to the house for dear life because that's where the two of them raised their family and it has lots of memories for him. But he won't give any thought at all as to whether it's the wisest course for him now. He thinks he doesn't have any options. He simply has to look for a situation where he's not by himself any longer."
"And I forgot to point out that Dad's home is falling apart on him. The repairs on the house, which he used to be able to do, he just can't do anymore and he refuses to hire contractors to do the work for him. The house is 60 years old and is really a mess. It needs new wallpaper and it needs new paint. He sure can't do it by himself and he can't expect his neighbors to do it for him."
Harold: "All this nonsense about me not keeping my house up and needing to move into a retirement home - I don't want to be around old people using walkers and wheeling around in wheel chairs. Besides, if I moved into a retirement home, all my longtime friends and relatives would forget about me. I'm not what you'd call a social person. It takes me a long time to open up with people and trust them enough for us to become friends."
Tanya: "Dad just isn't being realistic. There are all kinds of activities and social programs at senior living facilities that are designed to help the people living there to get better acquainted. People don't become good friends instantly but you can't expect that. When they see each other day after day, they become friendly soon enough. Dad would do just fine at one of these places, but he just won't admit it. Besides he needs to live some place where he can get three meals a day and where someone can make sure he takes his medications."
Harold: "Even if I did get to know a few people after awhile, where would I get the money to buy into a retirement home? Where could I go and live as cheaply as I live now? I hear that retirement homes are really expensive. Most of them require a big payment before you ever set foot in your apartment. I just don't have that kind of money. I suppose I could come up with the money to pay the entry fee by selling my house, but there would be big monthly payments after that. With my social security check, I barely make ends meet now as it is. It wouldn't be long and I would be out of money."
Anna then summarized what she had heard from Harold and Tanya. Talking to a mediator, who listened with an accepting, empathetic and nonjudgmental stance, enabled each of them finally to feel fully heard and to better understand both sides of their disagreement as well.
In the next phase of the mediation, the mediator asked Tanya and Harold in turn to speak directly to each other, restating his or her understanding of the other's point of view. This phase continued until they both agreed that each one had fully understood the other's concerns. It enabled each of them to understand the disagreement from the other's perspective and ultimately to take responsibility for their own part in the dispute.
Harold said that he really didn't know what it would be like to live in a senior living facility, since he had never seen one. He agreed to have Tanya drive him to a number of nearby facilities so that he could check them out first hand.
Tanya also offered to talk with her father's friends and neighbors and encourage them to visit him should he decide to move from his home. She also agreed that she and her husband would visit him regularly and assured him that her sister and brothers would do so too. In addition, she promised to encourage her adult children, Harold's grandchildren, to visit him from time to time.
Harold then commented that he has a friend his age, who is staying in his home because he has hired a caregiver from a business in town who helps him do things he can't do. He asked Tanya if she could find out more about that business and how much it would cost for him to hire one of their caregivers. If he could afford to pay someone to shop for groceries, do some cooking, run a few errands and check on whether he is taking his medications, he might be able to keep on living at home at least for a while longer, he said wistfully.
Tanya replied that she would be glad to look into that business and possibly some others that provide similar services. She also said that if they could find a caregiver they all trust, she and her sister and brothers probably could help their father pay the cost of hiring such a person.
After jointly considering a variety of options to remedy his circumstances, Harold and Tanya signed a form at the end of the second mediation session, listing all of their agreements. They ended the meeting with a warm embrace, and walked away arm in arm, to share dinner at a nearby restaurant.
The mediation process enabled Tanya and Harold to examine the negative labels they had placed on each other and acknowledge the extent to which they had misjudged each other. This allowed them to deal with their real interests and eventually move from talking only about problems to devising some mutually acceptable solutions.
Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman
- Hamilton and Seaman are founders of the mediation company www.Learn2Resolve.com, which provides mediation, facilitation, training in communication and conflict resolution skills, and team-building workshops. Their mediation curriculum, which is based on proven communication principles, serves as a foundation for the conflict resolution skills taught in their new book.
Jack Hamilton holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard University, a master's degree from the University of California, and a master's and a doctoral degree from Stanford University. He has been honored by Santa Clara County, California for his work as a mediator and currently coaches mediators in the Mountain View, California mediation program. He is the author of more than 50 academic articles and academic book chapters.
Elisabeth Seaman, a Holocaust survivor, holds a bachelor's degree from Boston University. She is fluent in Spanish, which has aided her career. Seaman holds several mediation certifications and has worked for more then ten years as a mediator for the U.S. Postal Service's REDRESS program. She has been honored for her contributions to the field of mediation by the California State Legislature and by San Mateo County, California.
"Conflict -- The Unexpected Gift:
Making the Most of Disputes in Life and Work"
By Jack Hamilton, Elisabeth Seaman, Sharlene Gee and Hillary Freeman