Technique: “O” is for Organizing. You may have been doing some organizing already, writing some ideass down or drawing simple little pictures to illustrate options. Here's where you try to pull everything together in order to prepare some kind of contract. It's the time to ask lots of clarifying questions and hash out the terms and the wording that everyone can live with. It's also the time to get specific. Think journalism: who, what, where, when and how. This is not the time for glib or vague promises. Nailing down the details helps goof-proof the agreement. Is it realistic? Is it durable? If a big brother agrees to “be nicer,” what will that look like? The little sister might be envisioning an invitation to eat lunch with her brother's group at school, whereas he's thinking more in terms of simply agreeing not to make faces at her during dinner. In other words, try to align promises with expectations.
Help the parties “walk through” what they will have to do to change their behavior according to the contract. (“What will it take for you to do this differently?”) Neuroscientists tell us that a mental rehearsal can prepare us to follow through later, by harnessing mindfulness and self-control.
Tip: It's a very good idea to build in a plan for any lapses that might occur, because no one's perfect. (“And what will happen if Marissa forgets to make her bed?”)
Q: Dear Susie – I tried these techniques with my kids, and one of them got restless and agreed to something I was pretty sure he'd regret. Should I have intervened? If so, how? Isn't this their thing to figure out?
A: Dear Parent – Yes, it is! Sometimes towards the end of a mediation, especially when the tense part is over and a resolution is at hand, people can become like ponies trotting back to the barn. Elated and tired, they just want it to be over! So in the Organizing phase of mediation you may feel a little like a party-pooper, and that's unavoidable. If you sniff injustice, you could build into the contract that everyone meet again in a week to review how things are going. There is nothing quite like giving in or giving up and then having to live with the consequences for a bit. It will make that child a more careful, patient negotiator going forward!