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Cross Border Family Mediation

Cross Border Family Mediation

Cross border and international family mediation is a fascinating area of mediation. In this interview Sabine shares her experiences as well as the challenges and dilemmas of mediating matrimonial cases in Ireland.

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Full Transcript

Aled Davies: Hi everyone, my name is Aled Davies, founder of MediatorAcademy.com, home of the passionate mediator. This is the place where mediators, aspiring, new and accomplished, come and learn from experienced mediators, practitioners and thought leaders from around the world. Cross-border mediation and international family mediation is an area of mediation that, if I’m honest, I know very little about so I’ve invited Sabine Walsh onto Mediator Academy to understand more about these areas of mediation, learn more about the models of mediation used, and some of the dilemmas and challenges facing mediators working in these areas. Sabine became a full time mediator in 2009 after a career as a solicitor in Ireland. She has extensive experience in mediation in civil, commercial, and in family matters. She’s a certified international family mediator and a trained professional practice consultant. She’s one of the regular writers for the Kluwer Mediation Blog and is co-editing their EU Mediation Handbook with Professor Nadia Alexander and Martin Svatos. So I am delighted to welcome for the second time Sabine Walsh onto Mediator Academy. Sabine, how are you doing?

Sabine Walsh: I am very well. Thank you very much, and I am going to just correct your pronunciation of my name, initially, which I hadn’t picked up on, but it’s technically in German, it’s “Sabina” Walsh. People call me “Sabina” most of the time, like the first lady of Ireland so I’m sort of flagging my cross-cultural heritage straight off.

Aled: This is the second time its happened to me now where I’ve gone headlong into a. . . I do apologise.

Sabine: That’s quite all right. Don’t worry.

Aled: All right, “Sabina.”

Sabine: Perfect, perfect.

Aled: Look, there’s a lot. . . I’ve got million and one questions on my mind about cross-border mediation, but before we go down that road, I’m curious to find out what a professional practice consultant is. Could you say a bit more about that please.

Sabine: Okay, sure, for those that haven’t come across the term, it is essentially the same as what in psychotherapeutic circles would be called a “supervisor” so it is someone who assists other mediators with their work, offers consultation, a listening ear, has obviously roles in relation to quality control and monitoring of ethical practices, and that sort of thing, but really is a support person for fellow mediators. That’s it in a nutshell.

Aled: Okay, so a supervisor in essence?

Sabine: Yeah, I think one of the reasons why the term “professional practice consultant” is used more commonly, particularly in Ireland and the U.K. is that certainly for those of us from a legal background, the term supervision doesn’t quite have the same connotations that it does in psychotherapeutic circles. I think it has more negative associations in the legal profession. I know that for solicitors in Ireland, one of the sanctions for malpractice is to practice under supervision, so the idea of having a supervisor is something that is not particularly welcomed so I think the term professional practice consultant is a little bit less contentious maybe.

Aled: I see, and you can probably charge more as well.

Sabine: [Laughs]

Aled: Because I have a supervisor in the community mediation context . . .

Sabine: Okay, yeah.

Aled: . . . who regularly gives me supervision on particular cases and so on.

Sabine: That’s what it is, yeah.

Aled: Is it specific to family mediation or is it more general?

Sabine: It’s not specific. The training is [inaudible 00:04:16] located within the context of family mediation all right, but there is a school of thought that really anyone practicing mediation, or anyone working in the area of conflict resolution, would benefit from supervision, you know? If you’re working in a particular service, supervision can often be very structured. I know in the family mediation service here, the state service, you have supervision regularly. That is part of your job function, is to engage in supervision.

In the private sector, where I’m working at the moment, it’s at the moment less of a requirement but more something that I suppose mediators would engage in off their own initiative. Really, as a form of support because mediation can be quite an isolated profession in a way in that you’re not often working with colleagues and being able to pick up the phone to a colleague.

Aled: Okay, we’ve got a little bit of interference on the line. Hopefully it’ll all come out in the wash. Have you got any browsers open like Chrome or anything?

Sabine: I don’t think so. Let’s have a look.

Aled: Okay, or email if you’ve got anything running if you could shut that down.

Sabine: No, let me see, oh, hang on. Yep, there’s a couple of things here. Sorry, it’s always on.

Aled: It’s always on.

Sabine: Conference registration, there you go. Shut down my Word that’s open as well. Yep, that’s it now. Clean as a whistle.

Aled: Lovely, all right. So cross-border mediation, what’s cross-border mediation?

Sabine: Well. . . sense, I suppose cross-border mediation is any mediation that happens with more than one jurisdiction involved or parties involved who are in different jurisdictions. In the practice area that I would work in cross-border mediation mainly is cross-border family mediation which is quite a specific discipline really [inaudible 00:06:35-00:06:43]

Aled: I’ve lost your audio now. . . Oh, you’re back again.

Sabine: Okay. You can edit this I presume and go back to that?

Aled: Yeah, let’s try that again. Let me ask you what cross-border mediation is again.

Sabine: I’ve lost a bar [sounds like 00:07:00]

Aled: Have you got me?

Sabine: Yeah.

Aled: Okay. Sabine, tell me what cross-border mediation is all about.

Sabine: Well, cross-border mediation in the broadest possible sense is any mediation that. . . in or from different jurisdictions or possibly the subject matter might 00:07:29] to interpersonal disputes. The cross-border mediation that I practice is primarily international family mediation so that would be cases arising out of relationship breakdown which have a cross-border element. It can be parties who are separating in different countries or, more commonly, cases of unlawful child abduction or retention that occur in the context of relationship breakdown.

Aled: How do you get into that?

Sabine: Good question.

Well, as I flagged at the outset, I’m from a cross-cultural background myself. I’m half German, I’m half Irish. But from a practical point of view, in 2011 the EU in association with the University in Leuven and a few other institutions organized a pilot training programme for 28 family mediators from 28 EU member states and including Croatia as an accession state, and I was the Irish participant on that. I was the Irish participant, and we participated in two weeks training specifically in international family mediation in Brussels.

Aled: Wow.

Sabine: Yeah. That programme went on to a second year where another cohort of mediators were trained and a number of trainers were trained. So if you like there was a “train the trainer” in international family mediation course. That project then resulted in the foundation of the European Network of International Family Mediators, which I can give you the link for, in due course. So there is now a network of mediators throughout the EU and of course further afield. But this particular network is based in the EU, who are trained, specifically, in international family mediation and particularly family mediation in child abduction cases.

Aled: All right. How often do you encounter these cases?

Sabine: Well, of course I don’t have any statistics to hand, but in my own work, I mean Ireland is a small enough country so it’s not something I do every day of the week. I would often work with cross-cultural couples, even in the context of domestic family mediation where, say, there’s a Polish mother and an Irish father who are separating, and that would obviously bring in a lot of the process models and skills. In terms of child abduction cases, in Ireland I think there’s something like 350 cases go before the courts every year, or are live before the courts, in Ireland. The big task that we have now is diverting those cases into mediation.

We do have cases but they’re just confined to a few a year at this stage. Really there’s a huge amount of work to be done on awareness raising, that mediation is actually an option. Because when you think of Hague Convention proceedings and the legal processes that follow an international child abduction. Mediation is probably not the first thing one would think of as an option to resolve these cases. So there’s a lot of work to be done on that.

We were involved in a few projects here in Ireland. We launched the Irish Centre for International Family Mediation based in N.U.I. Galway, the University of Galway, last year, with a very successful conference where we had a number of really experienced trainers, mediators and judges in this area.

On the international front, I’ve been involved with a project which has been run by the International Social Services so one that extends beyond the remit of the EU who are just about to. . . Myself and a panel of other people who work in this area, we’re involved in the writing and preparation of a handbook for families on international family mediation. That is going to be published, literally, in the next week or two so that is a very thorough comprehensive handbook, initially aimed at families but obviously for all professionals that work in this area, which really explores the process, the options, the concerns around international family mediation. So that’ll be a very valuable resource I think.

Aled: Just rewinding back a little bit, you mentioned you might mediate between an Irish mother and a Polish father that are separating, and even though it was a domestic case it will still allow you to bring in some of the process models and skills. Are they different skills and processes that one would typically learn on a mediation training or. . . ?

Sabine: I would say they’re additional, they’re additional skills. Well, skills and process models, maybe we should take those two things separately. In terms of the process model, the favorite process, if you like, or the best researched in particularly cross-border cases where there might be either an abduction or a threatened abduction. They obviously have different constraints around them than a domestic family mediation so you will have issues like. . . Well, first of all the parties, by definition, will probably be in different countries if one parent has taken the children to another country so you’re going to have to deal with that issue.

Aled: How do you deal with that issue?

Sabine: Different options, either one party travels in order to mediate or both parties travel to a neutral place sometimes or my mediation [inaudible 00:13:35] already is [inaudible 00:13:36-00:13:42]. For example in a child abduction, you might [inaudible 00:13:44-00:13:49]

Aled: I’ve lost your audio again.

Sabine: Nothing’s changed on this end.

Aled: No I know. Just say that again.

Sabine: Okay. Go back to that?

Aled: You talked about online mediation being used as an option. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Sabine: Well, you see there’re s a number of different factors that, in these cases, would make online mediation a very attractive option. Number one, financial constraints, often the parties just can’t afford to travel to a conductive venue. Secondly the abducting parent might fear criminal prosecution if they return to the state of habitual residence where the children resided. And sometimes agencies [inaudible 00:14:40-00:14:43] one country but there can be different agencies, lawyers and [inaudible 00:14:49] such, and then trying to get them all physically in one place, online mediation can work very well in assisting in getting them in . . . Sorry there’s just a little notice coming up here about the Internet connection . . . Can assist in bringing everybody into the one place.

Aled: Ironically as we talk about online mediation, we’ve encounter technical issues.

Sabine: Exactly, exactly, this is it.

Aled: There’s certainly still a way to go in terms of the technology to make interacting online work effectively. In those examples, when you say “online”, do you mean an online sort of virtual mediation room?

Sabine: Yeah, we have used [inaudible 00:15:40-00:15:46]

Aled: I lost all of that. Shame.

Sabine: Hang on a second, let me just go over here. I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference. Then we’ve got sun, but I can close the curtains. No, let me see. No, I’ve seen worse. Yeah, I had five bars when I started. That’s a bit better there. Any good?

Aled: That’s good, yeah.

Sabine: Okay, we’ll just have to muddle along I think.

Aled: Okay, that’s all right. That’s good.

Sabine: In terms of what you’re [inaudible 00:16:19] platforms shall we say, Skype is obviously the easiest and the cheapest, the most accessible but it’s not by any means the only thing that’s available. In the course of the training I had the fortune to trial a system that was developed by an Australian company called Relationships Australia, who obviously use online mediation a lot due to the huge distances involved in Aus. and that system was really like nothing I’ve ever seen. It was a true virtual mediation space in that there were different screens for different parties all on one computer obviously, but as a mediator you can talk to the parties together, you can caucus with them, there’s a virtual white board, a virtual flip chart, there’s an agreement panel where you can draft your agreement at the same time which was really very, very sophisticated and very impressive. And if only the broadband speed everywhere can be developed to the extent that these platforms will work, I think it’s really the way of the future, you know?

Aled: Yes, okay, absolutely, all right. So those are some of the processes. What about the skills that you might. . . ?

Sabine: The skills, I suppose the main. . . If you’re talking now specifically about a child abduction case say the first think you’re going to be meeting is. . . Look, all family mediations involve high levels of emotion and conflict, but I suppose the crisis that is caused by a child abduction, requires management on a whole other level.

You have the dynamic of the abducting parent being the bad guy and the left -behind parent being the victim. So that is going to have to be managed. You have high levels of fear on the part of both parents in relation to loss of contact with the children. Sometimes the left-behind parent won’t have actually seen the child or the children for quite a long time by the time they actually get to the mediation table.

Then you have the issue that you’re often working under very severe time constraints, because legal proceedings are pending maybe, or the parties can only travel for a weekend. So whereas in a domestic family mediation you might be able to sort of build rapport and use different skills over a period of weeks, it all often happens in the course of a weekend maybe.

The other kind of distinguishing factor, if you like, about international family mediations is that the preferred model is really one of co-mediation. But by co-mediation, the ideal model would be two mediators, one from each of the cultures of the parents involved, so if you have a German mother and and Irish father, you’d ideally like a German mediator and and Irish mediator. Preferably of course of different genders and preferably with a legal background and one with a psychosocial background. So that’s sort of the ideal, if you like, in terms of a mediation team so really that you can cover all the angles in this situation. But I would say. . . Sorry?

Aled: Sabine, sorry to interrupt you, a psychosocial background?

Sabine: Sorry, that’s the parlance used in Europe. So somebody who has a background in psychology or social work or therapy or something similar.

Aled: Okay, got you.

Sabine: So I suppose the idea there is that obviously the two mediators work together and that by virtue of there being two mediators, and particularly, two mediators from the different cultural backgrounds of the parties. That both parties feel that their voices are to be understood in the process, not just literally in terms of language, although that can be an issue as well, but particularly in terms of cultural understanding and competency. That becomes, of course, even more relevant if you are dealing maybe with a European parent and somebody from a non-European or what we call a non-western background maybe.

Aled: Yeah, all right, okay. You mentioned the frequency of these mediations especially if you’re doing it on a regular basis. How easy or how challenging is it to maintain those skills and that knowledge, if you’re not doing it on a regular basis?

Sabine: Yeah, it’s difficult enough. Hence the need for well, supervision and professional practice consultancy and regular ongoing training. That was one of the ideas behind the European Network was that not only would potential clients have somewhere to go to find a mediator with the appropriate skills. But also that, as a network, we could rely on each other for continued professional development and continued activities in this area, and that’s why every year. . . There was one, a conference, in The Hague this year in May where everyone from the network met up and at the mediation conference in Maynooth here last weekend, some of the Czech members of our network were there. The idea is that we kind of keep our skills fresh if you like in that way.

Aled: Are you predominately doing domestic family mediation or civil and commercial? Where do you. . . ?

Sabine: Yeah, I suppose kind of maybe the split is probably 70/30 so maybe 70% family mediation and 30% civil and commercial. Then I do a lot of lecturing and teaching as well. That’s my other hat as it were, one of the other hats.

Aled: Is that in the area of mediation or something else?

Sabine: Yes, I run a post-graduate programme in mediation and conflict resolution.

Aled: Where do you do that?

Sabine: It’s at the local university which is St. Angela’s College which is part of the National University of Ireland at Galway so that’s my base.

Aled: All right, so you’re based in Sligo, is that right?

Sabine: Yeah, in Yeats country in the west of Ireland, yeah.

Aled: The west of Ireland, I imagine you have to travel. I don’t imagine you get a huge amount of business, it’s an assumption I’m making, but I don’t imagine you getting cases through every day in Sligo.

Sabine: On the domestic mediation front, oh yeah. Definitely there’s plenty of work within the northwest of Ireland to keep me going. For the more cross-cultural stuff obviously that involves traveling, and I do spend a lot of time up and down from Dublin just for general, for training and for conferences. Plus, I’m involved quite heavily with the Irish mediation organisation, the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland, so that requires a bit of traveling as well. But on a day to day basis, there’s enough work within my greater catchment area here to keep me entertained anyway.

Aled: So it sounds like you’ve got a number of affiliations, you’ve just co-edited a mediation handbook, I know you. . .

Sabine: Still in progress, yes.

Aled: Still in progress.

Sabine: We’re nearly finished.

Aled: Okay, and you obviously know Nadia Alexander. When you see Nadia, ask her about chocolate buckets.

Sabine: Chocolate buckets?

Aled: I interviewed Nadia awhile back and I don’t know how we got onto this topic of chocolate buckets and we had about fifteen minutes of the interview just pontificating about chocolate buckets and she was just wild about the idea of a choc. . . But I can’t remember now what the context was.

Sabine: Was the bucket made from chocolate or was there chocolate in a normal bucket?

Aled: I think it was the bucket was made of chocolate, I can’t remember. I’ll have to watch the interview again, and if there are mediators watching this interview now, go and watch the Nadia Alexander interview. I promise it wasn’t just me and Nadia talking nonsense about chocolate buckets, there was some relevance to it.

Sabine: Okay, very good.

Aled: So I’ve just lost my train of thought now. But anyway, there we are. You write a lot, you seem to get yourself out there. That’s how I came across you through the Kluwer Mediation Blog. How do you go about marketing your services in the northwest of Ireland?

Sabine: Well, you see, I suppose one has to appreciate just how small the northwest of Ireland really is and how I was trying to. . . D’you know, it’s funny, just a little story as an aside. At the conference at Maynooth last weekend, Michael Lang was one of the presenters, whom I’m sure you’ve come across. He did a full day’s workshop on creativity and conflict and we were discussing various dilemmas and ethical dilemmas, and one of the participants asked a question about, what you would do in a situation where you found out something about the couple you’re working with outside of the mediation. Michael sort of looked perplexed and he said, “How would that happen really?” He says, “I work in . . . ” wherever it was he works “. . . and I never meet anyone else outside”, and all the Irish participants. [inaudible 00:26:22-00:26:25]

Aled: I’ve lost the audio again for that bit.

Sabine: How far. . . ?

Aled: You were saying that Michael Lang said “how would that happen? and then. . .

Sabine: And basically all of the Irish members of the group laughed because Ireland is such a small country that inevitably . . . You talk about six degrees of separation, but particularly in Sligo there’s only ever about two. So no matter who you meet or who you’re working with, it’s only a matter of time before you figure out someone [inaudible 00:27:02-00:27:06] at a table with know people that I’d never actually met but within ten minutes [inaudible 00:27:09-00:27:14] teaching him [inaudible 00:27:14] school down the road [inaudible 00:27:15-00:27:18] and another one was the sister of [inaudible 00:27:19-00:27:20]

Aled: The audio, I’ve lost the audio again.

Sabine Davis: Well, you can cut out that bit anyway probably. But basically in terms of getting work, the idea first of all, is that you have to get your name out there and a lot of the business I get is from word-of-mouth.

Aled: Okay, how do you get your name out there? What is it you do on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly basis, how do you organise yourself in a way to do that?

Sabine Davis: I talk a lot, so I do presentations on mediation for say the local solicitors’ association. I’m involved in a local mediation organisation here. We do public awareness events every now and then. You talk to people. I’m in my local business network. In Ireland really, yes, Internet presence is very important, but making that personal connection with people is much more so, you know? So say, if I need somebody to design a website for me, the first thing I’ll do is not go to the Internet and Google web design in Sligo. I’ll think, “Oh hang on, there were two web designers in the Women in Business network. I’ll see can I contact one of them.” Or, “I met a lady last week who was telling me about her sister who started this web . . . ” you know, so really the personal connection is very very important, you know?

Aled: In Ireland.

Sabine: Yeah, yeah, and particularly outside of Dublin in smaller communities. But really it is very much a situation of making those contacts with people, and of course Internet presence is very important as well, particularly now for the more international work that I do.

Aled: Yeah, so the vast majority of your enquiries come from word of mouth, people that have heard about you or someone has referred you on.

Sabine: Yeah, or it’s through their solicitors obviously is a very. . . Solicitors are a very important source.

Aled: Okay, yeah. I was chatting to a mediator yesterday. He was asking my advice on getting started, and I was reflecting on our conversation, as I was talking to him. It struck me that a lot of mediators go to mediation networking events and I often wonder, probably not the best place to be networking. Because everyone there has a big deficit column in terms of their number of mediations. So it’s best to find a place and go and speak at an event where there aren’t any other mediators but your target market are there.

Sabine: Yes, absolutely.

Aled: Have an interesting story and be . . . Standout. Make sure you are the only mediator at an event.

Sabine: Yeah, exactly, and particularly to liaise with local services like your Citizens’ Advice Bureaus and Family Support Centres, Family Resource Centres, all of those places where people go to for support, where then your service can be offered as one of the options as well.

Aled: Okay, so you’ve got, what are those sources? Citizens’ advice. . .

Sabine: Yeah, I think you have a Citizens’ Advice network in the U.K. as well, and we have Family Resource Centres they’re called here which are centres that offer advice and support on everything to do with families and parenting and that sort of thing.

Aled: Okay, and you write regularly on mediation blogs. Is that something that you thought about doing as a way of marketing, or. . . ? How did that come about?

Sabine: Well partly, but also I suppose it was from working with Nadia who edits the Kluwer Mediation Blog. They asked me to be one of their regular writers so that’s what I do, and it’s just a good way of. . . It’s a bit of reflective practice sometimes as well. When you can take the time to sit down and write about a topic that’s exercising your mind or keeping you awake at night. It can be helpful sometimes. It’s interesting and it challenges me to keep abreast of developments and try and look at things, that are going on here, from an outside perspective.

Aled: How do you keep abreast of developments in the field of mediation?

Sabine: Well, in terms of Ireland obviously being involved with our professional association that’s one of our big jobs is, I suppose, keeping in touch with the Department of Justice, with all the relevant agencies that have to do with mediation that are legislating, that are setting up new services. Keeping an eye on the news of course, always. But then very importantly, try to take any opportunity to go to a conference that I can, there are wonderful conferences around. There’s so much going on you could go to conferences every day of the week so you have to sort of pick and choose.

Aled: There are a lot of mediation conferences.

Sabine: There are.

Aled: Every week there’s something. Even in the U.K., every day there’s a big conference in America, and there are more than one conference running. . . It’s astounding.

Sabine: Yeah, you could really spend an awful lot of money so you have to check what’s going to be relevant to you. Then of course keeping in touch with colleagues is very important as well. We have regular professional, we call them “learning and sharing groups”, where local practitioners meet and have a chat about complicated cases. It’s a form of supervision or practice consultancy, as well, so that helps too.

Aled: Part of the reason for doing these interviews is, I want people watching these interviews to be able to learn from experienced mediators. Because it’s hard to go on a mediation training and anticipate or even cover the kinds of dilemmas or situations you encounter because they’re so, you talk about a conflict of interest or knowing something about the parties. I did a mediation a few months ago now and it was a community mediation and it was the second go at this mediation.

The first time we tried it, the two mediators . . . Because we have a co-mediation model in the community service where we work, it was between a Somali family and another family living next door to each other. And one of the mediators who was Somali happened to know the Somali family, and that only surfaced when they got into the room together, so we called a halt to it.

I wasn’t part of that first round so second time they had a go at it, I said, “I’m available on this evening, I’ll come and do it.” So we arrived and of course I get into the mediation, I have a chat with the Somali family then the other family arrive, they’re from the Valleys in Wales, living in West London. They’re from a town, we knew the same people, but they’d been living in London for 20 years or 25 years but it’s a small world. You’ve got to, in the moment, figure out how you handle that dilemma. Tell me about some challenging situations you’ve encountered on your journey, dilemmas where you think to yourself, “I didn’t handle that particularly well. If I had another opportunity at it, I would have done it differently.”

Sabine: Gosh, where to start.

Aled: Too many to mention?

Sabine: How long have you got?

Aled: Pick one that stands out.

Sabine: I suppose that one case that kind of does stand out and that is often with me is the. . . and I suppose the tag line for it would be, “knowing when to let go”.

Aled: Knowing when to let go, okay.

Sabine: Yeah, or “recognising your limitations”. But again, a couple I was working with for a long time, and they came to me quite early in the process of divorce. Just through various reasons I knew of them, I didn’t know them personally, but I knew of them. They were within the same . . . Therapists might talk about them being within the same system. So they’re kind of . . . On paper it all looked very doable and that. I thought “Oh, this will be fine” They were happy, even though I was from the same area that they were, that was fine. We went off and we worked together really for a long time you know? Some issues got more or less. . .

Aled: When you say “a long time”, what are we talking here?

Sabine: Nine months we’re talking, now, not every week for nine months there would be gaps where either due to busyness of the couple or whatever.

Aled: They were separating.

Sabine: Yes, they were divorcing, yeah. But anyway as time passed, things just got more difficult and things got more sort of gridlocked and more deadlocked. Really the conflict levels were actually escalating which is sort of counter-intuitive. You can have lots of hypotheses for why that happened, but at this stage I was so invested in the case, I really wanted to get it sorted. I suppose it got to the point where looking back on it now I was probably in mediation terms “over-functioning” a little bit.

Aled: When you say “in mediation terms ‘over-functioning'”, I think I know what you mean but people watching this might not know. What do you mean by that?

Sabine: I suppose I was kind of losing sight, a little bit, of the fact that really it was up to them, number one, whether they wanted to resolve it at all and if so, how. I was lacking the insight to just take a step back and really say, “Well, listen folks, what do you really want to happen here? What do you want to happen from this process?” Instead of kind of trying every impasse-breaking skill I had. There were BATNAs and WATNAs everywhere and time limits and yards of flip chart paper and brainstorming and consultation of solicitors. Really, what I needed to do was take a step back and say, “Is this process really working for you, given all of the circumstances at the moment and where you’re at?” When I eventually did ask that question, I suppose the answer, which I knew in the back of my mind already, but hadn’t really wanted to see was, actually, no the process isn’t working. Then I did divert them into a different process and thank goodness that did work, but it can be very difficult to let go when you really want something to work.

Aled: Are you familiar with the “drama triangle”?

Sabine: I’ve heard of it, yeah. It’s probably related to concepts of triangulation in systemic practices and that sort of thing I imagine.

Aled: Yeah, well, the drama triangle is a sort of phenomenon in transaction analysis . . .

Sabine: Yes.

Aled: . . . where you have a persecutor, a victim and a rescuer, and of course, mediation is almost a perfect storm for those three archetypal characters to manifest. Where the parties see us, the mediator, as the rescuer, and sort of call the rescuer out in us, and then we sort of participate in that role. It’s tough. Which is why supervision is so important because we all have blind spots and just to be able to reflect and go, “Yeah geez, I’m up to my neck in this when I should be stepping right back.”

Sabine: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, absolutely, and it’s important to get a reminder of that every now and then because even though you think. . . Particularly if the parties come to you and say, “We don’t want to go to court. We can’t afford to go to court. We really want this to work.” It’s very hard to then get to a point where you have to say to them, “Look, actually, this isn’t the right process for you. What you need now is for an outside person to make a call on this and then you’ll be able to move past it.”

Aled: Do you remember the point where you had that moment of. . . ?

Sabine: Yes, I do. I do, yeah, and it came and went a few times but then, yes, I do, and particularly I remember the sense of, “Why didn’t I do that ages ago?” When I had made that decision and it became clear then that that was really the only option for them.

Aled: How did the parties react when you said that?

Sabine: That was what really affirmed my decision was actually how well they reacted, relatively speaking. There was probably even a bit of relief in some ways because this wasn’t an easy process. And I suppose that’s where taking a step back and thinking well, maybe it’s not just all about this, nine month period that has to end in agreement. Maybe the fact that this particular decision is taken out of their hands will enable them to come back to the table on other things down the line.

For example, in Ireland, just a little aside on family law, you’re not entitled to apply for a divorce until you’ve been separated for four out of the previous five years. So if you’re separating, initially you can apply for a judicial separation, or separate by consent effectively by means of a deed or a contract of separation. But the result of that is that all of the issues that come with a separation in terms of finances, childcare, maintenance, pensions, are often opened up twice so they’re opened up at the initial separation and then they might be opened up again four or five, sometimes ten, sometimes fifteen years later when it comes to the point of divorce.

Different couples work differently. You can have a situation where maybe they mediate their separation and everything goes quite well. Then circumstances have changed, finances have either increased or dwindled, people have new partners, and suddenly they find themselves in litigation over the divorce five years later.

Or the converse where maybe the separation at first is very contentious and then they go to mediation for the divorce, and it’s a much simpler or less contentious process down the line. But there are those two opportunities at least from a legal perspective at which mediation might come into play.

Aled: And that’s peculiar just to Ireland, is that right?

Sabine: Yes, that’s right. Divorce has only been permissible under the constitution since 1996, and the distinction obviously between separation and divorce is that one is entitled to remarry after a divorce but not after a separation.

Aled: Right, okay, that’s very interesting, very interesting.

Sabine: Which always kind of brings me to my next dilemma.

Aled: Go on.

Sabine: My next practice dilemma which is, I don’t know to what extent you do family mediation. But the needs of the parties, they often come to me and say, “We just want it sorted.” And the words “clean break” and “boundaries”, and “I want it done and dusted once and for all”. That’s an aspiration that parties come to the mediation process with. Then you find that number one, they’re only getting separated, so that hurdle of divorce, if they want to go for it is still looming into the future. Number two, you’ll then find that actually the house, the family home, due to the finances. . . .negative equity and therefore, it can’t be sold so the parties are tied to that, for the next 15 or 20 years. And then of course the dynamic of having children and having to co-parent.

So having to temper parties’ expectations when they come into a mediation process saying, “The relationship is over. I want nothing more to do with her, nothing more to do with him. I want a clean break. I want to be able to move on.” And then as a mediator the first thing you have to do is say, “Well actually, there are the difficulties of law, there are the practical difficulties, and then have you talked to your bank manager? Because really he’s the other person who needs to be at the table here if you’re ever going to want a clean break.”

Now that sounds quite cynical but it’s one of the biggest challenges working in family mediation here at the moment.

Aled: Gosh, yes, because I was surprised when you said you were working a long time, I was thinking maybe six weeks, a couple of months. You said nine months. Because I haven’t done any family mediation so I think the most I’ve done is one mediation but on two separate days, and it’s done and dusted after two days. So that’s the longest. So in terms of getting involved with the parties emotionally, I imagine one becomes really vulnerable to that, as a mediator, susceptible to. . . You’re on this journey with them.

Sabine: Yes, you are, yeah.

Aled: Just being able to detach yourself from that, I guess that’s where the idea of neutrality or impartiality comes in to some extent.

Sabine: Yeah, and self awareness particularly. That you’re aware of your own buttons that are being pushed and that you are a part of the system now for these couples going through transition. In general, I think, it’s another challenge as a private practitioner is that often what couples need are actually a series of appointments over a long period of time. Particularly if there are issues like having to get a view from a bank manager on whether somebody can take over the joint mortgage in their sole names, that can create a time-lag. But often for the separation to take place through mediation and really for all the issues to be addressed, it can take quite an amount of time. Which of course, if you’re in private practice and there’s no funding available for mediation to private practices at all in Ireland, is a cost issue for the parties as well.

So on the one hand they want everything sorted very quickly so they can move on and also to minimise costs, but actually the process itself and the processes of separation and. . . What did Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin call it, decoupling, uncoupling, consciously uncoupling?

Aled: A conscious uncoupling.

Sabine: It could take a bit of time. So you’re trying to hold those two needs at the same time, the need to give the parties the time to catch up, psychologically, with the decisions they’re making but also address their need for having things sorted as quickly as possible.

Aled: Just on this conscious uncoupling, I’m a little bit cynical. When I heard about that I just imagined all this P.R. team sitting around a big table, “How are we going to manage this?” I’ll tell you what, and the brainstorming, “What about sort of a decoupling, no uncoupling, well they’re making a conscious, conscious uncoupling that’s it. That’s what we call it.”

Sabine: I think even among the mediation community there was a fair bit of sniggering that went on at the time.

Aled: A little industry pops up around ceremonies for conscious uncoupling.

Sabine: “Do you want to consciously uncouple your relationship? Come to us.”

Aled: Brilliant. So where are you heading with your career? What are your aspirations as a mediator?

Sabine: Is my husband watching?

Aled: Where would you like to be in five or ten years as a mediator?

Sabine: Okay, well, if the rest of my family might cover their ears at this point because I’ll get into trouble. But onward and upward. I have a few things in the pipeline that I can’t really talk about just yet. But I’m very much enjoying the teaching as well obviously.

It’s a very nice balance to practice because if you’ve had a crappy day at the office and if things have been difficult, you go back and you have a session with your students and you’re talking about conflict and high conflict and whatever aspect. It really reminds you why it is you’re doing it all and why it is you spend two hours with a couple who are at their absolute worst.

So taking that step back into teaching and into the theory and the aspirations behind it, is very healthy. Plus conversely I am a firm believer that if you’re teaching something you need to be actually doing it as well. So my practice informs my teaching, my students inform my practice, so it’s a very nice kind of “cycle”, I suppose, to be in.

Gosh, there are a lot of things I want to do. There are a few, sort of, writing projects in the pipelines. Every now and then I threaten to do a PhD, and it’s at this point my husband will be leaving the building, but watch this space and we’ll see what happens.

Aled: All right, and where do you think the mediation field is heading? Five years time what’s it going to be? What are we going to see?

Sabine: In five years in Ireland, put it this way, if the Department of Justice hasn’t finally published and passed the Mediation Bill that was initially presented in 2012, if that hasn’t been done in five years time, I might have to just go and just chain myself to the gates of government buildings. You can hold me to that because it has been promised and promised and promised. And I don’t know if we had a, somewhat controversial, change of Minister for Justice there a couple of months ago, and we’re really hoping that the new minister now is going to have this on her to-do list for this session or early next year at the very latest. Because it’s well past time.

So for Ireland I’m hoping we will have a new comprehensive law on mediation that will enshrine all the key principles of mediation. If it is, if the final draft is published in the same format as the initial scheme of the bill, it would. . .

Aled: Could you say a little be about the Mediation Bill?

Sabine: Well, I suppose the initial scheme or draft bill that was published in 2012 provides. . . I suppose a bit of the impetus behind it was, amongst other things, the shall we say, “encouragement” of the international community notably the I.M.F. and the European Central Bank to Ireland to get our dispute resolution processes into a more cost effective space particularly in the public sector.

So the public sector legal spend has to come down under the terms of our I.M.F. EU [inaudible 00:53:35]. Then of course there’s the EU [sounds like 00:53:40] mediation directive of 2008 which has been implemented, but is there really to be worked with in the context of the Irish legal system. So if the final bill is similar in terms to its first incarnation, it will mean enshrinement of the key principles of mediation such as confidentiality, impartiality, voluntary process, etc.

It will also provide new mechanisms for cases to be diverted into mediation. There will be an onus on solicitors, on barristers to refer cases to mediation, to provide information to clients on mediation. The courts would have broader powers of ordering mediation and directing attendance at mediation or information sessions. The M.I.I., the Mediators’ Institute of Ireland, with whom I work, are hoping for some more provisions to be put in place in relation to regulation, or at least the creation of a register of mediators. So it really has the potential to change the landscape and for the first time properly regulate both the profession and the practice of mediation in Ireland. So hopefully I’ll be reporting back on that at some stage.

Aled: Yes.

Sabine: In international terms, really from engagement with my international colleagues, I can only see it developing. I think there is broad recognition there that one type of dispute resolution process, i.e. the courts, is no longer enough and that mediation is going to take its place. Not just as an alternative process or as a soft option but as a proper, robust, dispute resolution process. And then although I think, you’ll probably, after the forthcoming conference in October, will be better to report on this. But I think the online environment is one that I would be very much keeping my eye on in terms of developments of new platforms and dispute resolution processes. I think that’s really a big growth area.

Aled: Yeah, I interviewed Pablo Cortes from the University of Leicester and he was saying that the A.D.R. directive and the O.D.R. regulations will compel EU member states by April 2015 to incorporate . . . I can’t remember exactly . . . but they will need to provide for consumer disputes some kind of O.D.R. Platform, central hub, for resolving the disputes. Also, he thinks, that this directive coming in will expedite the need to regulate mediators’ accreditation in the U.K. and a few other things.

So I think it might be, indirectly, of benefit to the traditional mediation “getting people in the room” kind of model because it would raise awareness but also start to improve standards and expectations and quality control and those sorts of things.

Sabine: Yeah, it’s an interesting one that on the training front and the accreditation front particularly. It’s quite a controversial one, because of what you want in many ways is the increased professionalisation and particularly the recognition of mediation as a profession and as a service for a service users. But you don’t want that to happen at the expense of the creativity and the flexibility of the process itself, which is what makes it so different. So the risk always, with over-regulation particularly of training, is that the essence of what makes mediation different to some of the more streamlined processes, for want of a better word, is it has the potential to be regulated out if you like.

Aled: Absolutely, that’s the dilemma I think, one of the dilemmas. Brilliant.

Sabine, it’s been a real insightful interview and I’ve learned a lot about mediation in Ireland. I’m still struck by the fact that, the regulatory, not the regulatory environment, but certainly the laws around separation and divorce in Ireland and how that can really present a challenge, when it comes to managing expectations of parties that just want a, as you said, a clean break, nothing more to do with them. Managing those sorts of expectations, having those sorts of conversations that’s challenging I think.

Sabine: Yeah, well, it makes it interesting anyway.

Aled: If people want to reach out to you, find out a bit more about the work that you do, say thank you, what’s the best way of contacting you?

Sabine: Well, I don’t know if you can put up the link to my website.

Aled: Absolutely.

Sabine: swmediation.com, and I think my contact details are on there so I’m. . . Or in this day and age, just Google me and you’ll probably find me.

Aled: Well, ever since the Olympics, there was a paralympian from Wales, called Aled Davies, he won a gold medal in the discus. He takes up the first 15 pages of Google now. So forget about Googling my name. Not that I’ve ever Googled my name.

Sabine: Oh no, no, nobody ever does.

Aled: Sabine, look, let me be the first to thank you. Thank you very much for coming today.

Sabine: It’s a pleasure. It’s a pleasure, and thank you too.

Aled: Have a wonderful weekend.

Sabine: You too.

About the mediator

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Sabine became a full time mediator having left legal practice in 2009. She has a broad ranging private practice. She is Programme Director and Lecturer on the Postgraduate Certificate in Mediation and Conflict Resolution at St. Angela’s College, Sligo (NUIG), and also provides mediation training for other agencies, including the Law Society. She is a certified international family mediator, a trained Professional Practice Consultant and hold... View Mediator