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 Metaphor in Mediation /
Metaphor in Conflict Resolution
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Disputants (clients) in family mediation are trying to resolve conflicts about such complex matters as equitable allocation of resources, the best interests of their children, and which plans will work out better over time.  Their understandings of these matters exceed their actual, direct experience and are therefore typically conceived metaphorically.   A mediator can assist by listening for the metaphors disputants use as they state their complaints, arguments, positions and proposals.

 

A mediator listening for metaphors in live, ongoing discourse might learn to use any of several approaches.  Examples below illustrate how the mediator can detect metaphors by identifying (1) figurative or incongruous language, and (2) unwitting gaps.  The mediator will usually make statements and ask questions to test hypotheses about client metaphors.  This intervention inevitably influences client thinking and expression, as some examples show.  The skilled mediator will tailor this influence to reveal disputants’ thinking and to help it converge or diverge as may best serve the conflict resolution process.

 

 

EXAMPLE 1: (Identifying Figurative Language)

 

These parents were in their first session to negotiate their divorce.  The Mother spoke emotionally about how her life felt since their separation, her uncertainty about money and how to be a single parent.  The Father said they had been separated for two years, it was time to make it official, and have a regular parenting time schedule.  They listened tolerantly to each other, but she looked hopelessly away when he spoke.  When she spoke, his eyes rolled.  They were not communicating very well.

 

Mom says:  “The kids need me at home.  There’s so much I have to do to have food in the house and to get them off to their activities.  And now so much uncertainty about money coming in, being all alone as a parent…”

 

The mediator (detecting the metaphor of a container with firm boundaries) responded: “Are you pretty confined inside the home, can’t see where you will be tomorrow because of today?”

 

Mom responds: “Yes.”  Although Dad doesn’t speak, he is now paying attention.

 

Dad says:  “Let’s get on with the divorce, splitting up stuff, deciding on the parenting schedule…”

 

The mediator (detecting a journey metaphor with distinct points along the way) responds: “So you’re looking down the road and ready to make decisions about each step you need to take so you can move on?” 

 

Dad nods; Mom also seems more comprehending.  The mediator addresses Dad: “In your mind you’re already on the road.  Now look back to where one starts from and what preparations are needed.”

 

The mediator turns to Mother: “If, for a moment, you look out from where you are now, past today, can you see down the road…handling these decisions, …?“

 

The mediator has responded to each client in terms of the metaphor detected for each, received affirmation, and begun to test an extension of the journey metaphor that both might find useful.  As the session continued both clients began to pay more focused attention to what the other was saying and to use more common terminology.

 

 

EXAMPLE 2: (Identifying Figurative Use of Language)

 

In negotiations regarding parenting time, the Father is proposing more time with the children and the Mother resists, saying that Father "just doesn't see" certain things that the kids need or that may be dangerous.  Father responds that he is a totally responsible father.  The mediator picks up on Mother's mention of "see" and decides to explore its figurative possibilities.  The mediator suggests Father's radar is scanning up here and Mother's is more down there so some of what shows up for Mom ends up below Dad's radar.  Mom says, "Exactly!"  Dad says he is tracking the kids just fine.

 

Now the two parents are both using the radar metaphor for the moment but still not understanding each other very well.  The mediator wants to be more specific.  So he decides to explore a related metaphor that may work better, saying:

 

            "Well, it's not possible to have your lens focused on everything.  If you are doing a video of kids' daily activity, what do you try to focus on?" 

 

            Both parents apparently accept this shift to a video photography metaphor. 

 

            Dad says, "I would want a sky cam." 

 

            Mom says, "No, you need to see their faces to know what's going on with them."

 

            This use of metaphor helped these divorcing parents talk more clearly and effectively about what was important to each of them concerning the care of their children.

 

 

EXAMPLE 3:  (Identifying Unwitting Gaps)

 

            I asked a separated couple if they were both in agreement to go ahead with the divorce, or whether either had reservations.  Wife said she was not sure it was entirely the best thing.  Yet she said she was ready to proceed.  She said she believed that she needed to work on certain issues, and that she probably could somehow have found a way to work on them within the marriage.  But it wasn't happening, a lot of time was passing without change, and she believed it was important to move on.  Husband didn’t accept this, arguing that certainly they could continue to work on preserving their marriage.

 

            In listening to this I noticed the gap between Wife’s belief that it was best to work on the issues and her readiness to proceed with the divorce.  She spoke coherently and confidently, so evidently it seemed whole for her.  What was unwittingly unexplained was that something was wrong about her staying in the marriage and working on issues.  I found myself thinking that staying where she was might be unsafe, scary, precarious, too inactive or something similar.  The "unsafe, scary, precarious, too inactive" ideas give hints about possible metaphors. 

 

            To understand her account I had to fill in the gap with scenarios where people feel unsafe, etc.  She was a mountain hiking enthusiast so I asked if she felt she might be too near a drop-off or a cliff to be able to try something new.  She said no, that she felt she was down, underground where there was too little air and light or space to move; she had to get out.  Husband was still not pleased, but was now better able to accept her decision.

 

 

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