Before the judge stood an African-American woman and a Latino man, both in their early twenties, each flanked by a sharply-dressed attorney. Most who come to this particular court, for unmarried couples, cannot afford a lawyer, so this was unusual. A volunteer mediator, I sat in the back, eager for some action.
Marco’s lawyer told the judge his client was asking for full custody of their three-year-old boy. Sonya’s lawyer said her client could scarcely believe the father was requesting this and would never allow it. The judge, a woman, smiled, raised her eyebrows, and tilted her head slightly, pausing. I stood up and raised my right index finger. “Judge, I can get these two to talk directly to each other right now”. A few minutes later the attorneys were gone and I was in a small conference room with Sonya and Marco.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the venerable Buddhist teacher and peace activist who has lived through two wars in his native Vietnam, says all conflict is caused by “wrong perceptions”. It was a useful insight as I helped Sonya and Marco get to the bottom of their dispute.
In the cross-talk it became apparent that Marco got the feeling Sonya believed he was a negligent and maybe even an abusive father to three-year-old Armando. Sonya couldn’t understand Marco’s hostile defensiveness in response to her questions about why little Armando had recently begun coming back with certain explicit new words and poking certain of his mother’s body parts.
Marco and Sonya stopped talking altogether.
Reacting in order to protect her little boy, Sonya had begun to curtail Armando’s time with Marco and his family.
Marco was advised by the attorney to take an aggressive posture, even though until just recently everybody had been happy with Sonya and Sonya’s mother doing the bulk of the parenting and Armando being at Marco’s family any time he was wanted.
In mediation, I helped them discuss their son’s observable behaviors, express their feelings and needs, and clear up the “wrong perceptions”.
With both parties’ permission I took a break from the cross-talk and gave a three-minute lecture on how we can stick to observations—what was actually said or done-- instead of interpretations or analyses of what happened. I asked them both to make requests, not demands. Both of them seemed to easily understand that a request is a request if when I don’t comply with what you want me to do, you don’t punish or blame or guilt me—you just explore the problem further with me until we can figure out a solution that both of us can live with. They nodded in agreement when I said that in any interaction between them they had two choices: either listen “empathically” or express themselves with “honesty”—about their own feelings and needs.
Mediator: Sonya could you tell Marco what the essence is of what’s bothering you.
Sonya: I don’t want Armando coming home talkin’ ‘bout “tits” and “pussies”.
Marco: I don’t know where he’s getting that from! He isn’t getting it from me!
Mediator: Sonya, could you tell Marco what it is you’re trying to preserve or protect? What really matters to you here?
Sonya: OK, Armando’s too small to be learning about sexual things.
Mediator: Tell Marco what beautiful value or need are you trying to protect.
Sonya: You mean like...OK like I don’t....I want Armando to keep being innocent and pure like a little boy should be.
Mediator: Thank you Sonya! Marco, what is Sonya deeply wanting here? Are you hearing it?
Marco: Yeah, sure, I’m hearing it.
Mediator: Can you say it back to her in your own words so she knows you’re hearing her?
Marco: She thinks I’m corrupting our son.
Mediator: Thanks. That’s not what I heard her saying. I heard her saying something different.
Marco: OK OK I get it. She’s like “I want Armando to keep being innocent”.
Mediator: Thanks. Is he getting what you want Sonya?
Sonya: Yeah. Now he is!
Mediator: Do you want the same thing she wants Marco?
Marco: Yeah for sure...
The two discussed the little boy’s behavior and possible causes including the other little boys who are often at Marco’s parent’s home. Marco agreed that certain “male” swatting-on-the-butt practices would be kept to the baseball field only and not repeated at home.
Marco easily agreed to instruct his attorney to drop the motion for full custody. In a more difficult negotiation he agreed to pay one-half of the $2,000 that Sonya, in a panic that she might lose her son, had just spent on the attorney. Sonya said she never doubted Marco’s love for the boy. Their body posture changed as the two of them relaxed.
When walked out into the lobby we had a signed memorandum of agreement ready to present to the judge in the afternoon. An older African-American woman came up and hugged Marco, saying “It’s been a long time!” We all sat down together—Marco, Sonya, her mother, and I. Sonya, enrolled in a master’s program at the university, looked at me intently. “Did you have to study to be able to do that?” I smiled and nodded, feeling calm and glad inside.