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The Seven Deadly Sins of Mediation and How to Avoid Them

by Mary Melech

If you’re going through a child custody dispute in California, the chances are high that you will need to attend mediation at some point in your case. Mediation is a confidential process whereby court appointed mediators assist parents in working out a custodial plan that supports the child’s needs, as well as those of the parents. Whether your case is out of a reporting county or non-reporting county, you will do yourself well by avoiding the following missteps:

1. Treating the Other Parent as The Enemy

I address this one first because it is the most common, and most tempting, mistake to make. If you find yourself referring to “your” kids/responsibilities/burdens/obligations or “his/her” mistakes/failures/problems/issues -- Stop. Right. Now. These are not just your kids, but children you share with another human being.

No matter what your opinion is of this person, you need to be “we”-focused and results-oriented. Be an adult, and look for solutions that involve both parents, rather than pointing your finger at the other party.

2. Gratuitous Insults

Using mediation as an outlet to voice your ambiguous and overgeneralized complaints (“He’s a deadbeat dad” or “She’s forty going on twenty-one”) just makes you look like an immature parent with an ax to grind. If you believe the other parent is doing something that’s hurting the kids, express your concerns constructively: “I believe Joe’s/Jane’s conduct is negatively affecting the children because [insert concrete and meaningful examples here.]”

3. No Game Plan

So, you currently see your kids for a few hours a day, once per week, and now you want equal custodial time. First of all, good luck with that one. Second, how are YOU going to make that happen? Are you able to arrange your work schedule accordingly? How will you find the time to take the kids to/from school, ensure they eat sufficiently nutritious meals, get them to soccer practice, see that they complete their homework, etc.? Have you considered the realistic consequences of this change, especially on your children? If you have not, and cannot do a half-way decent job spelling out your intentions to another person, you will look like an unprepared tool who is just seeking to increase/decrease child support. Take the time to plan out your proposal, write it down, and take your notes with you to mediation.

4. Lack of Focus

Why are you at mediation? Here’s a hint: it’s not to complain about the 1001 ways your ex screwed you over, or how you can’t stand the new girlfriend/boyfriend. Save those discussions for your therapist, and stay focused on issues concerning the children.

5. Going in with a Bad Attitude

Are you annoyed by the thought of a complete stranger sizing you up as a parent in less than an hour and possibly effecting substantial changes to your life? Here’s the good news: mediation is not the final step. The mediator is not the All Mighty. You will still be afforded your day in court. Try to relax and focus on putting your best face forward, and again, be resolution-focused.

6. Emotional Outbursts

This should go without saying, but no one was ever served well by dropping an “f-bomb” during mediation. Try to get the profanity, crying, eye-rolling, arm-crossing, lip-pursing, and the like, out of your system before your appointment.

7. WTF Attire

Like everyone else on this planet, mediators WILL form opinions about you before you before you even say one word. With this in mind, there’s a time and place for stripper heels and sweatpants (caveat: never together), but mediation is not one of them (neither is court). Dress like a fully-functioning adult who appears to be a contributing member of society. Your goal is to look as least offensive to the general public as possible. This essentially means to dress business casual, and to shower ahead of time. To clarify, for men that means dress slacks, a collared shirt, and dress shoes and socks. For women, think dress pants or knee-length skirts/dresses, a “modest” (read: uninspired & non-provocative) blouse, and a pair of unassuming dress shoes, or, almost anything out of the JC Penney Liz Claiborne Collection. Remember, it’s only for a few hours. You can throw on the ripped jeans and Britney Spears concert T-shirt afterward.

Good luck and . . .

FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS GOOD, PURE, AND SANE, DO NOT SIGN ANY AGREEMENT BEFORE DISCUSSING IT WITH YOUR LAWYER FIRST!

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