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How to Manage Fear in the Divorce Mediation Process

Whether people realize this or not, there is a lot of fear involved in getting a divorce. Before a couple walks into their divorce mediator’s office for the first time, there could be hundreds of thoughts running through their minds. This is usually the first time they have had to think through some really tough issues. Some common questions are “how will I support myself after the divorce is final?” or “how will we share time with our minor children when we both love them so much?”

This is like any other crisis. For the person in the client’s chair, the problem is unique. After all, they have never been through a divorce before. To the mediator, however, these issues are all too common. In my opinion, one of the keys to a successful mediation is helping the clients manage their fears. There are several ways to do this:

1. You must understand fear and how it affects people physiologically.

This is a concept that is not deeply understood enough by people. In addition to my mediation training, I have studied neuroscience under one of the leading experts in the field – Doctor Pillay of Harvard University. He has written books and taught several courses on the impact that fear has on the brain.

In a nutshell, when someone is experiencing fear a certain part of their brain (the amygdala) is activated. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for triggering our flight or fight response, which was a necessary mechanism for survival when we were primal human beings. Now, however, this function of our brains can hinder us. When fear activates, it actually shuts down other parts of the brain that are responsible for logical thinking and decision making. Without understanding this, a person in a state of fear could be perceived as being unreasonable or irrational.

When you understand this, you can talk the client through their fear in a way that de-activates that part of their brain. As a result, they can start thinking logically and clearly once again. My understanding of fear and how to manage it makes my style a lot different than other mediators. To tackle a problem, you have to understand it first.

2. You must help the clients gain a sense of empowerment.

Divorce is commonly a time where people feel out of control. They are in a crisis and they feel unable to look into the future. When you want to help the clients see the big picture, managing perspective is key. While we appreciate that emotions are usually running high during a divorce (and understandably so), we also remind our clients that these emotions are temporary. This is a shift in perspective.

And, while the emotions are temporary, the decisions they are making may not be. That is why it is very important to remain as calm as possible during this process. At Alternative Divorce Solutions, we highly recommend taking breaks during the meetings. Even something as simple as closing your eyes for one minute and breathing deeply can help you calm down enough to start thinking clearly again.

Once our clients are calm, we provide them with the legal information they need to make decisions. When the clients feel like they are back in control of their outcomes, their attitude automatically changes. They move from fear to a sense of empowerment, understanding that even though their marriage is ending their life doesn’t have to.

3. Practice Compassion

As divorce mediators, we are given a unique privilege to help people when they really need it. Divorce is one of the most difficult experiences a person can have. It is a test of strength and character. At Alternative Divorce Solutions, we appreciate that our clients are in pain. We know that they are good people at their worst. Therefore, we do not judge our clients. Instead, we do everything we can to help our clients feel cared for, welcome and even loved. We welcome our clients into our lives as part of our extended family. Without this deep level of compassion, I could imagine it would be hard to do this kind of work.

Those are some tips for conducting the mediation. As a client, here are some helpful hints:

1. Remember the big picture – you are in mediation to save yourself emotional and financial stress. You are also here to make the best decisions you can for your future with the information that is in front of you. Emotions are temporary even though they may hurt. Try to keep that in mind.

2. Focus on what you want – when you are going through a crisis, it is easy to think about all of the things going wrong. Instead of setting your eyes on the negative, try focusing on what you want out of your mediation. Picture yourself one to five years out in the future. What do you want your life to look like? Then, operate from that place.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for a break – sometimes, the discussions can be lengthy and overwhelming. Feelings can arise that you aren’t ready to handle. At any time, you can ask to take a break from mediation so you can take a deep breath and re-group.

4. Congratulate yourself- if you are going through mediation, you should be proud. You have taken the high road in the midst of a tragedy. That is very noble of you and shows that you are a person of great character. Take the time to congratulate yourself for making a good decision and for making progress in your mediation appointments.

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