The Mediator: A Family Feud Settled

By William Ury

It was a family feud. Dan and Sally were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. Sally’s father Jim, who had employed Dan in his business, refused to pay him for work he had done. Furious, Dan sued his father-in-law to recover his lost wages. The judge, however, suggested that they try talking with a volunteer mediator first. I was the volunteer; it was one of my first mediation cases twenty years ago.

Dan, Jim, and I sat in a little room in the courthouse. Clearly a little uncomfortable, they would not at first even look one another in the eye. I began by explaining the process. “Mediation is very different from arbitration,” I said. “As a mediator, I don’t decide the case. You do. My job is to help you reach an agreement if possible. If we can’t reach agreement, the case goes back to the judge.” I made it clear that anything they told me I would hold confidential and then set out some ground rules for our discussion – no interruptions, no name-calling, keep to the point. “Any objections or additions?” I asked. They said no and we began.

“Why don’t we start with you, Dan?” I asked. “Why don’t you tell us what the problem is from your perspective?”

“Well, it all started when Jim -“

“That’s not true!” Jim protested heatedly.

“Jim,” I responded, “remember you agreed not to interrupt. You’ll get your turn to speak in a moment. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jim sighed.

After Dan finished telling his side of the story, I had a question.

“Dan, let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. Your primary interest, as I hear it, is getting paid fairly for the work you did, is that right?”

“That’s right.”

“Okay, then, it’s Jim’s turn,” I said.

Jim gave his account, which revolved around his dissatisfaction with Dan’s frequent absences from work. It turned out that Dan, with Jim’s consent, was working toward a business degree at the time.

“Okay, we’re making progress here, at least in understanding each other’s interests,” I said. “Now, what are some ways to meet both your interests? Let’s try to compile a list. I’m going to ask you to suspend your criticism for a while while we try to come up with ideas. All right? And remember that these are just options, no one’s committed to them. Now, anybody got an idea?”

“What if Jim pays me for my hours and I, in return, help train my replacement?” offered Dan.

“Good, that’s one approach,” I said. “What’s another? Jim, you got an idea?”

The discussion was going well until somehow the subject of Sally came up.

“We were doing fine until her family started interfering,” said Dan.

“What do you mean, you son of a gun? You were the one who left her in the dirt!” Jim fired back.

“Now, listen!” I interjected, “Remember, Dan, that Jim is the grandfather of your children. Jim, Dan is the father of your grandchildren. How do you want them to think of you – as bitter enemies or as men who dealt with their differences in a dignified fashion?”

In the end, after two and a half hours of discussion, Dan and Jim did reach agreement. They were pleasantly surprised, and I admit so was I. Jim agreed to pay Dan for the work he had done after deducting the health insurance payments Dan owed. Dan, in turn, agreed to drop the lawsuit and help train his replacement. We wrote up the agreement on the court form, specifying what the payment would be and when it would be paid.

“I’m sorry about what I said,” Jim said to Dan as we were preparing to leave. “I’m sorry too,” replied Dan, “I was rough with you. It wasn’t necessary.” They shook hands and left the room – together.

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