The Essence of Mediation

Little-Boiled-Frog Goes to the Spa

As you will recall, there was an internal struggle of who would get to be my inner animal.  We had Pomeranian, the anxious bug-eyed-dog who had served me so well for the last 40 years; Water Buffalo, the large uncomplaining semi-domesticated bovine with “issues” who had been nominated by Janice, Rachel’s sister; and Little-Boiled-Frog, the poster-amphibian for slow change.  Last we checked, Little-Boiled-Frog was the leading candidate.  We learned that if put into boiling water, he would jump out.  If put into a slowly heating water bath, he would happily swim around until he was heated to death.  Faced with those options, he went on a ski trip.   It was a nice move but it only delayed the inevitable confrontation with the water bath.

After 5 months of waiting, we finally plunged into the financial settlement of our divorce.   Our frog-natures would not go to just any spa.  No… Our spa would have its own well-qualified and well-paid attendants–professional mediators specializing in “resolving conflicts so that both parties were happy with the outcome.”  We would also bring our own personal attendants–family law attorneys specializing in defending the interests of each of their respective frog-clients.

I loved the “both parties happy with the outcome” concept.  But how could such a nice outcome be achieved?

At first glance, the process was simply meetings and discussions.  But since our mediators taught the technique of mediation to would-be-mediators, I suspected that they were using a specific recipe for helping their client-frogs face their water baths.  I was not given the recipe, but I may have been able to deduce it.

Step #1:

Give Little-Boiled-Frog a fake remote control to the hot tub temperature.  Let him play with it for awhile.

This is where you are asked what you want out of the process.   The implication is that what you want really matters to the final outcome.  This is probably not true, but it is a nice illusion.  It feels good to say what you want.  It feels good to believe that you control your destiny.   I left that session feeling affirmed.

Step #2:

Let Little-Boiled-Frog get used to the notion that in the future… not now… but sometime… when everyone’s schedules permit it… he will go into the hot tub.

I will admit that the months which passed from the divorce news to the substantive financial discussions did allow the fading of hard feelings.  This left behind the easier-to-stomach rational business-type calculations.   I remember a Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk was given a simulated battle exercise in which there was no possible way out of certain defeat.  He made some kind of outlandish maneuver forcing a change in the rules of the game explaining, “When you can’t win the game, change the game.”  I think the passage of time changed my game from “the financial settlement will help me emotionally” to “the financial settlement will be just a financial settlement.”


Step #3:

Tell Little-Boiled-Frog that it is the mediators, not the other frog, who is adjusting the heat.

This one cracked me up.  I would be told that a proposal accepted by my lawyer and I would be presented to the “other side” not as coming from us per se, but instead, as coming from the mediators.  Then, minutes later I would hear a proposal billed as having been created by the mediators as something the other side might accept if we agreed to it.   Even though I think I saw through this one, I appreciated it anyway.  It felt much better saying things knowing they wouldn’t be attributed to me.  And it felt better hearing things from the mediators and not the other frog.


Step #4:

Focus Little-Boiled-Frog on the smallness of the most recent tiny increment in temperature.   This is critical.  Distract frog from the fact that the sum of the prior tiny increments had already raised the temperature far beyond what frog said would kill him.

This one cracked me up too because it was so obvious, yet so functional.   The drop-dead-will-walk-away-and-go-to-court deal was discussed early in the negotiation.  I had promised myself that I would jump out of any increase in water temperature beyond that point.  I would quit the mediation and start the courtroom method.  Yet, I found myself saying OK to a first increase, then OK to the next increase, the next and the next…   I was swimming around in a slowly heating water bath and I knew it and I didn’t jump out.

Step #5:

Charge Little-Boiled-Frog a whole lot of money for his time in the hot tub and tell frog that if he says yes to just one more increment, his time in the hot tub could be over.

If I was haggling over the price of the car I would have walked away at any of the increments to demonstrate my resolve.   But you are not paying the car salesman just to talk to him.  The potential of needing another full day of mediation with all its costs was a giant motivator to accept the next increment in the hope of finishing.

Step #6:

Make Little-Boiled-Frog understand that the only alternative to the slow poach in the hot tub is the handing of the thermostat to a judge.

Problem with this alternative:  The judge may just decide to drop a plugged-in-toaster into one of the frogs’ hot tub… And you don’t know who will get the toaster.  The choice of “OK, turn it up one more degree,” versus “I want to face the toaster and pay for the privilege,” is easy.

Did the process work to “achieve settlement with both parties happy?”  On the narrow focus of achieving legal separation, I answer… grudgingly…  “it worked.”  Regarding overall life issues of happiness, I would say that “no.” I guess the process wasn’t meant to do that anyway.

So, the frog was boiled and it wasn’t so bad.  The Pomeranian had a cardiac arrest long ago.  His Do-Not-Resuscitate-Order was apparently ignored.  He is back. Water-buffalo is alive but his issues have not been resolved.  I fear there may have been a misallocation of resources.  Great sums of money for wonderful professional help have brought me merely to the start of the real problems.  I’m reminded of the great focus, expense and professional help dedicated to childbirth… the books, the childbirth educators, the birth plans, the doctors and nurses, the hospital.   But then you take the baby home and the real work begins.  I’ve got a baby-water-buffalo with colic on my hands and I don’t know what to do with him.

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