How is Mediation Like Solving a Puzzle?

How is Mediation Like Solving a Puzzle? by Susan Ingram

{2:52 minutes to read}

When I’m first meeting with couples in divorce mediation, I find most people have little knowledge as to how mediation actually works. The metaphor of putting together a jigsaw puzzle, an activity most people are familiar with, is very helpful in illustrating the process.

Mediation typically takes much less time than litigating a divorce – often a matter of months as opposed to a year or more with a contested divorce. But that doesn’t mean mediators “cut corners” as we move through the process with our clients. We need to help our clients discuss all of the issues thoroughly, so that they can make the best decisions possible for themselves and their family.

There are many interrelated steps we need to take our couples through during this process. And each step/decision is often dependent upon the others in some way. Indeed, because of this interplay, a couple may need to restructure some of their earlier decisions as the facts and their options reveal themselves more fully. And that’s all good — it’s all part of the process.

Returning to my ‘solving a puzzle’ image, here are a few pointers for both the puzzle-master and the mediating couple:

Lay out all of the pieces and then begin to sort them: Before you begin a puzzle, you need to view all of the pieces, then start to see how they relate to each other (by color, shape, pattern, etc.). In mediation, before final and “informed” decisions are made regarding finances, parenting, and other issues, you must have knowledge of all of the information that affects your decisions. Full disclosure is an absolute must.

Start with the simpler areas, then tackle the harder parts: With a puzzle, this means creating the framework for the puzzle, as the border pieces (which have at least one straight side) are easiest to identify. With mediation, all topics will of course need to be discussed thoroughly, but it’s often advisable to start with the less complicated ones.

Look at the puzzle image on the box if you’re confused: It’s impossible to complete a puzzle if you don’t have the picture of the puzzle to reference. Similarly, the mediator holds the “big picture” of the various issues and how they fit into a comprehensive agreement.

Take a break to get un-stuck: Completing a difficult puzzle can be tedious work and requires time-out to clear your mind. In mediation, the time in-between sessions can be very helpful, as it gives you an opportunity to gain perspective on the issues and perhaps contemplate other approaches.

Allow yourself enough time to finish: It always takes longer than you anticipate to complete a puzzle; so, too, in mediation, it will likely take longer to finish the process than you initially expect. But know that the time will be well spent. In the end, all of the pieces of the puzzle will fit perfectly together!

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