- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Therapists and professional mediators say there are specific "do's" and "don'ts" for relatives who want to help resolve a long-standing conflict within the family.

Susan Castner, an Indiana lawyer who has developed an eight-hour training course for mediation and communication skills for businesses and schools, says one of the most basic skills in mediation is "active listening."

"You try to put yourself in the other person's shoes, being empathetic," Ms. Castner says.

Second, she says, mediators should talk to the offended parties with "I" messages instead of "you" messages. In other words, she says, mediators should say such things as, "When you and grandpa sit around with us at Christmas and you talk to each other in such an unkind way, I feel nervous because …"

"One of the things I think is so important is to create a faith environment for that person, and an 'I' message is one way to do it," Ms. Castner says. "Another one is a neutral question to draw them out."

On the other hand, she says, the key thing to avoid is taking sides.

"Don't get in the middle," Ms. Castner says. "Don't judge or blame. Don't dwell on the past. Don't allow the conversation to get very negative. Don't criticize. Don't use 'you' statements. Don't attack or threaten."

Phyllis Clymer, a licensed certified clinical social worker in Columbia, Md., says family members need to establish their goals clearly in their own minds before attempting any sort of family mediation. If the goal is just to make it through the holidays without a civil war breaking out, she says, everyone being on their best behavior can probably accomplish that.

If, however, the goal is to try to heal the rift and to fix the problem, mediators should realize that just neutralizing the problem may not work.

"There is this idea that people walk around a particular truth or reality," Ms. Clymer says. "I've never found that valuable. What I've found much more valuable is what I call a subjective reality. In my mind this is what happened, and I'm aware that in your mind something very different may have happened. But if you take that and say 'I got it right, you got it wrong,' that is not going to help. You have to make the parties see that an agreement doesn't have to be reached on who was right or wrong way back when, but to settle on something now."

If all else fails, Ms. Castner says, family members can always consider chipping in and buying a few hours of consultation with a trained professional mediator.

"It might be the ideal situation to do that," she says. "There are probably many situations in which that might be the best way to inspire [the offended parties] to do something."

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