Why Mediation Clients Resist Hiring Consulting Attorneys and How to Persuade Them Otherwise

By FRI Co-Founder Robin Duboe Seigle, J.D.

female client meeting with her consulting attorneyCouples who choose to settle their divorce or other family law issues through mediation, do so for many reasons.  It is cost effective, more cooperative and less adversarial than divorce litigation.  Additionally, mediation completes more quickly than a litigated divorce.   Importantly, people want to avoid the cost and acrimony that comes when lawyers are involved.

Good mediators encourage people to have counsel.

Good mediators will typically encourage clients to seek advice and counsel from separate consulting attorneys.  Yet the parties are often reluctant to do so.  Why do they avoid having consulting attorneys?  For two main reasons:  Cost, and the fear that the attorney will sabotage the process and create more conflict.  Sometimes one party who may own a business, has more knowledge about the couple’s finances and/or the law.  Perhaps there is fear that things will be harder if there is a lawyer influencing the other party.

There is little question that the general public’s view about divorce attorneys is that they are expensive.  Everyone has heard stories from friends, family or co-workers who have spent tens of thousands of dollars for their divorce.  Stories abound of long term involvement in the divorce process.   Often folks feel that they did not get a good resolution.  They believe that they “lost.”

Even mediation clients who initially don’t want to see a consulting attorney, will agree to have an attorney review a draft Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) at the end of the process.  This is better than nothing, but there are some very good reasons to seek a mediation-friendly attorney at the outset.  (Some attorneys will claim to be supportive of mediation, but they are not.  More on that later.)

Some good reasons to seek out advising counsel are:

  • Legal knowledge can help the party prepare for the sessions and be a more effective negotiator for him/herself
  • Information about possible support amounts will help the party think about realistic budgets
  • Before agreeing to proposals at the mediation session, a party can say she/he needs to think about it.  This provides a chance to discuss it with the consulting attorney if desired or needed before agreeing.
  • For the more knowledgeable party who is hesitant for the spouse to seek counsel, if the less knowledgeable party agrees to something without getting advice or feels pressured to make a decision, it is easier for that person to challenge the deal in court later.  So, it is better for the business owner/person with more financial or legal knowledge to make sure the other party has legal advice to avoid a judge setting aside the hard fought agreement later.

It’s good to involve advising counsel early in the process.

The problem with an attorney just reviewing the MSA at the end is that there is no context.  He or she won’t necessarily understand why the client agreed to things.  It is impossible for that attorney to be completely aware of the discussions leading to the agreement.   Comments just based on the written document may upset the mediation process and leave the other party feeling upset.  It’s tough when a person thinks there is an agreement and the other person is going backwards.  This can upset a feeling of trust that might have increased between the parties during the mediation process.

Steer clients towards a mediation-friendly attorney.

As for how one should go about finding a truly mediation-supportive consulting attorney.  It is best when the mediator provides a list of attorneys whom they know are supportive of mediation.  If not the party might call around and ask attorneys if they are mediation friendly, and they will say that they are, and then immediately say: “let’s have a four way meeting.”  That is a big red flag.

A client who has chosen mediation wants someone to support them in mediation and not turn the process into a negotiated divorce with two more adversarial attorneys. The parties should keep in mind that they are hiring the attorney, and the attorney works for them, not the reverse.  If the consulting attorney tries to start negotiating directly with the other side rather than giving the client advice and sending him or her back to the mediation, it’s time to have a frank talk with that attorney or find a new one.

Consulting attorneys help with power imbalances.

So, as a mediator, if there is an imbalance of information between the parties, or the personal styles of the parties are not balanced, or there are legal complexities, it is important to strongly encourage one or both to have consulting attorneys.  Explain that it is in their best interest to do so.

Further Reading:

Mediation Skill – “Ask! Don’t tell.” – Shining Light on the Issues, Information and Ideas to Settle a Case

Mediator as Translator: Using Neutral Language to Help People Hear

Why a Mediation Career Can Be So Rewarding

Declare your independence from litigation! Try an ADR only practice.

By Shawn Weber, FRI Co-founder

One of the greatest days of my life was when I decided to give up litigating.

Another great day was when I took status on my very last litigated divorce case.  No longer do I need to ask a person in black robes for a day off.  I call all of the shots in my work and LOVE it!

Declare your independence from litigation!

I litigated for years and found that while I was fairly good at it, the practice brought out the worst in me.

Before a trial, my family would notice my grumpiness.  I seldom slept well and gained weight.  Even when I “won,” it didn’t feel like a win. It was awful.

Finally things came to a head.  I quit accepting litigation cases cold turkey.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t scary.  It was terrifying!  But once I made the commitment, there was never any going back.

Peacemaking Only!

Today, my practice is only about Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR – Also known as Consensual Dispute Resolution).  I do mediation, Collaborative Practice, neutral settlement conferences and negotiated settlement.  I’ll pretty much do any family law work as long as I don’t need to cross the threshold to the courtroom.  At first, there was a real financial hit.  With litigation, just a few cases could make my year.  I needed more ADR cases to get the same revenue.  But with some recalibrating, I started replacing the revenue out-of-court cases.  Now, I’m making more money than I did before.  Most importantly, I’M HAPPY!

With litigation, I always had a feeling I was doing more harm than good.  Families suffer when people do their divorce at court.  It’s not the court’s fault.  It’s just that an adversarial system is really a poor way to resolve family issues. Peacemaking processes, however, make a difference for the better.

The Transformative Moment

I live for that “transformative moment” where warring spouses find a way forward.  There’s no better high than getting into the world the people are experiencing, digging deep and finding pathways for settlement.  To see family in crisis find a way to peace is the greatest feeling.  Helping people protect their kids and pocketbook from conflict is so awesome I would do it for free!  (The best part is people actually paying me for this awesomeness.)

So, do you feel trapped in a litigation career?  Don’t worry.  There’s a way out!  If you are willing to try and take a leap of faith, you can declare your independence from litigation forever.  Come on in!  The water’s fine!

Want to take the first step to declare you independence from litigation?
Click here to sign up for our fun and interactive Divorce Mediation Training.

How a Mediation Career Changed My Life: personally and professionally.

Why a Mediation Career Can Be So Rewarding

“Fair” is the F-Word!


Why a Mediation Career Can Be So Rewarding

By Shawn Skillin, Esq.

Family Resolution Institute Co-founder

A Mediation Career can be rewarding whether you’re a lawyer, a mental health professional or a financial professional.

people calculating a new mediation career change

No matter what types of disputes you may mediate, mediation as an alternative method of conflict resolution, gives you control over your hours and your caseload.  It also gives you a chance to make a real difference in the lives of others.

Additionally, you have an opportunity to work with other professionals in a non-adversarial environment. Gratefully, a mediation career lets you be nice, almost all the time.  Therefore, mediating family law disputes makes for a fulfilling and satisfying career.

Greater Control with a Mediation Career

Control is why many clients choose mediation as an alternative method of conflict resolution for their divorce.  Clients want to control how fast or slow the process moves along, costs and outcomes.

But control is also a great reason for professionals to choose mediation as a career path.  Controlling when and where you work and how many clients you see in a day, week or month makes it possible to live and enjoy the rest of your life, too. 

You don’t have to miss that little league game or piano recital. In addition, there are no emergency ex parte hearings to mess with your schedule. I once had to miss the beginning of my son’s birthday party because opposing counsel would not be flexible in scheduling an Ex Parte.

Because you work with both clients, educating them along the way, having them set agendas and establish timelines, there are fewer emergencies along the way.  Together, all of these “control issues” make your professional life a lot easier and more predictable.  In turn, it makes your personal life better, too!                    

Successful mediators help both clients manage the divorce transition in a more positive, less stressful way. 

Mediators have the rare privilege of working with both clients. By educating them, setting a calm tone, and providing coaching and reassurance along the way, you can decrease their anxiety and keep things on an even keel. You can teach them what to expect and how to handle the stress, anxiety, and emotions that pop up along the way for themselves and their children. 

I’ve had so many clients tell me they feel like they are losing their mind or going crazy. They aren’t functioning well at work, they are forgetful, they aren’t sleeping well and they’re losing weight.  Reassuring them that this is normal, that they aren’t losing their mind, and that it will get better, really helps them settle down.  Clients really appreciate this! A lot! Happy clients, happy practice!                     

In addition, spending some time talking about how their children are doing is also helpful.

For clients who have children, this is often their main concern. Helping them to think about their children’s strength’s and weaknesses and how to manage both effectively during the divorce is helpful. Also including information on dating new people, moving to separate homes, warning signs that kids are not coping well, and community resources for children really helps parents.

Watching parents take a deep breath and a sigh of relief is so rewarding.  It’s one of the best parts of being a family mediator.

A Cooperative and Relaxed Atmosphere

One of the other things I really enjoy about mediation is working with other professionals in a non-adversarial environment.  Whether I’m the mediator or consulting counsel, the atmosphere is much more cooperative and relaxed. 

There is still some posturing to be sure, but much less than in a litigated case. Discovery tends to be informal.  There are no depositions to suck the life force out of you. Neutral financials can be invaluable in providing information and options for the clients and the other professionals involved. 

All of this makes for great professional working relationships often leading to future referrals and a busy practice.  When everyone gets along and the case moves along easily, clients are happy too.

Aspiring mediators often say they are looking for a more relaxing, less adversarial practice.

With a mediation career, you never have to write a nasty lawyer letter or make nasty phone calls when you’re the mediator. Instead, you get to be nice, calm and reassuring. It’s a good space in which to work.

This doesn’t mean you don’t have challenging days. You do. But it’s a different kind of challenge.  Its better than getting your best argument shot down in court and having to explain that to your client. 

Clients may make some interesting decisions, too, and it may not reflect what you would do, or what a judge would do.  But if you’ve educated them, helped them explore the options and they made the choices, those decisions are theirs and it’s all good. 

Sometimes I even learn a new trick or two from my clients.

Mediation is a great career choice.

A mediation career makes it possible to actually achieve a work/the rest of your life balance. It leaves you with more energy and feeling more positive at the end of the day.  And you get to help people too. Who can’t get behind that? 

Want to explore a mediation career? Become a trained mediator! Sign up for our next 4-day training in beautiful San Diego, California!

Download a San Diego Registration Form or Register Online.


Read Also:

How a Mediation Career Changed My Life: personally and professionally.

Mediation Skill – “Ask! Don’t tell.” – Shining Light on the Issues, Information and Ideas to Settle a Case

By Shawn Weber, J.D., CLS-F*
bright light
It’s not your case!

Professionals – especially attorneys – tend to have a habit of telling people what they need to do.  They may ask lots of questions to gather information to analyze the situation and determine what they believe is the correct outcome.  But in mediation, that is not the best approach.

Coming to a mediation with a fixed notion of what an outcome should be supplants the self-determination of the parties.  The parties, not the mediator, have the right to decide on their outcome. This is hard for professionals sometimes.  That’s because the temptation to announce a solution and “cut to the chase” is what they are accustomed to doing.  After all, it feels good to ride in on a white horse and solve all the problems.  Leave the white steed in the advocacy barn.

On the other hand, using the mediation skill of curiosity to ask questions rather than telling helps parties to hear one another more effectively.  Plus, it happens frequently that a professional may go into a mediation session with an idea of where she thinks the case should go, only to realize that the parties have a different idea.  Most often, the parties’ preferences are better.  It’s important for a professional to have the humility and courage to let go of preconceptions.

Questions should be open-ended, i.e. not answerable by yes or no, but rather require the participant to explain or add additional information. Questions should not be used to lead the party to a conclusion the mediator has already reached.

The Three I’s

We at Family Resolution Institute embrace the mediation skill of curiosity.  We use the three I’s:



Issues are the things that matter to the parties (whether they are legal points or personal concerns).  It’s crucial for the mediator to clearly identify what the issues are from the parties’ perspectives — not the mediator’s. It takes the important mediation skill of real listening and questioning to get to what the issues really are.

Also, a party may hold to a legal issue for a personal, emotional reason.  Frequently, the issue is not the issue.  Good listening and curiosity can get to the real issues, which then will illuminate the pathways for settlement that may be missed if a mediator makes too many assumptions.  It’s best not to assume anything.


Information consists of the details of the parties’ perspectives regarding issues.  It could be a description of a “story”.  Information can also be financial numbers, budgets, schedules and events.  Sometimes people may differ on their perceptions of the information.  It is very important to use curiosity with many follow up questions to really understand what is happening.  Frequently, a party may not want to share all of the information.  However, for mediation to work, transparency and equal access to all relevant facts and information is crucial.  A smart mediator will never assume anything.  Ask and explore until you know.


The ideas are the various options for settlement.  It is important to generate as many ideas as possible. Even ideas that may seem bad at first may, after evaluation, turn out to be pretty good. Generating options and ideas is the fun, brainstorming part of mediation.  It’s how mediators can show parties what’s outside the box.  A skilled mediator will help the parties come up with as many different ideas as they can.

Don’t just assume that the typical options for settlement are the correct ones.  Don’t be constricted by what is typical or what a court would do.  Teach clients to open their minds and be creative.  Importantly, the best ideas usually come from the parties.  Don’t interfere with the parties right to self-determination by coming up with all the ideas.  After all, this is the parties’ case– not the mediator’s.

By taking the time to explore the information, issues and ideas with an open mind and no judgment, the mediator can really open up the case for the parties.  The role of the mediator is to help parties shine a light on what is possible and then let them make the decisions.  This mediation skill opens pathways to settlement that may have been obscured previously.  How do you learn what is possible?  Don’t tell.  Just ask.

*Certified Specialist – Family Law
The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.


Top Five Principles for Successful Family Law Conflict Managers

“Fair” is the F-Word!

Mediator as Translator: Using Neutral Language to Help People Hear

By Robin Duboe Seigle, J.D.

Do Specific Words Really Matter?


Harsh, accusatory or negative language prevents people from hearing each other.

It may be that “a rose is a rose is a rose.” But when it comes to couples getting divorced, some words used by their lawyers, mediators or other professionals can sound harsh, accusatory or negative.  It’s almost as if the parties are speaking a foreign language.  People just don’t hear each other.  A skilled mediator can help with “translation” so that the participants can hear each other.

At least for mediators, part of their role is helping the parties:

  1. hear what the other person has to say,
  2. see the case from different perspectives,
  3. look at their own roles in the divorce and current conflicts in new ways, etc.

One way to do that is to use neutral language
rather than inflammatory words.

So what do I mean by neutral language?

Rather that using words such as: The mediator says:
Problem, dispute or conflict Issues, concerns, different points of view, different perpectives
If one party says: The mediator says:
She doesn’t tell the truth Trust is an issue here or You would like to receive accurate information
He’s hiding money You expert full disclosure of all assets
She is always late to pick up the kids You would like her to be on time
He lets the kids leave messes around the house You are concerned about the kids cleaning up after themselves

Use Neutral Language to Help People Hear Other

A skilled mediator helps parties hear each other by using neutral language.

The mediator reframes the comments in neutral language in order for the message of the person speaking to be heard in a different way, as an interest (underlying need), by the person to whom the comment is directed. There is nothing helpful in the mediator repeating the statement in the words of criticism.  However, reframing critical statements using neutral language can help the parties hear each other.

Try it, it works!



Further reading:

To Caucus or Not to Caucus?    5 Circumstances When It’s Really Helpful

Crucial Divorce Mediation Skill: Keeping Your Eye on the Emotional Need

Crucial Divorce Mediation Skill: Keeping Your Eye on the Emotional Need

By: Shawn Weber, Esq.  FRI Founder, Attorney, Mediator, Collaborative Divorce Practitioner

©2017 By Shawn Weber

Perhaps the most important divorce mediation skill I have learned over the years as a family law mediator is keeping one’s eye on the emotional need.  While cases may involve the analysis of law or complex financial issues, the emotions surrounding those issues are crucial to finding the pathway to settlement.  In fact, the case won’t settle until both parties’ emotional needs are satisfied or, at least, addressed.  Here are some suggestions about how to tease out the emotional need and then take steps to address it.

Emotions are not always logical or rational.

trained mediator using divorce mediation skill of active listening

There’s a temptation as a mediator to look for the most logical conclusion to a dispute.  Most of us have the experience in divorce work to generally know which way a case ought to go logically. It’s easy for a neutral without the burden of emotional ties to “cut to the chase” with a simple logical conclusion.  Making a rational analysis and helping parties see the logical is clearly an important divorce mediation skill.

But, imposing our will on what is “rational” or “logical” from our point of view without addressing the parties emotional concerns surrounding the issue will often blow up in our face.  People are capable of seeing logic, but they don’t typically make decisions based on what they think about an issue.  Rather, people make their decisions based on how the feel about the issue.

Cases where people are fighting about what to do with the house are a good example.  Sometimes, a party will insist on keeping a house when the math doesn’t add up.  Even though you can show the numbers and provide a succinct, logical argument supporting a sale of the house, a party may still insist on trying to keep an affordable home.

However, the reasons for keeping the home may be largely emotional.  Maybe there is a long history with important memories associated with the house.  Perhaps the person feels insecure and the house is the only stable thing in their lives during the chaotic and frightening time of the divorce.  It may be that a lot of personal, sweat, tears and labors of love went into renovating or decorating the house and the person just can’t imagine selling something that carries so much of them in it.  For them, it’s not just some impersonal piece of real estate with aa simple dollar value.  The value is far more intrinsic based on the emotional connection and not on the economic fair market value.  A mediator would ignore these emotional connections and cues at her peril.

The issue is not the issue.

Remember, the issue that appears on the surface may not be the issue.  Teasing out what is really motivating a person is an essential divorce mediation skill. Perhaps a person’s reason for avoiding alimony is less about economic concerns and much more about feelings.  

For example, I had a case recently where the wife was absolutely unwilling to pay alimony.  We looked at the numbers and the law.  The analysis showed that it made complete sense that she should pay alimony.  She could afford it and frankly the law would demand it.  But she still refused.  

Upon digging deeper, we learned that her resistance to pay support to her husband had much more to do with her resentment that, from her perspective, he had not contributed to or supported her successful career and had not worked outside the home during he marriage as much as she had wanted.  The argument of his contributing more the family finances during the marriage was a source of contention throughout the marriage and she had resented that when they had children, she as working outside the home while he was able to spend time with the children.  

She was angry that she had missed out on a lot the children’s early years because she was traveling for work.  She blamed him because she felt she would not have had to work as much if he had contributed more to the finances.  The issue was not the issue.  

Be curious with the divorce mediation skill of active listening.

To tease out what the issue really is, a good divorce mediator will master the divorce mediation skill of curiosity.  By using active listening techniques and open ended questions, you can get to the bottom of what motivates a person.  People are like onions with many layers.  Take the “Columbo” approach and ask lots of questions.  If folks hesitate to share their concerns in front of the other party, consider meeting separately to probe even deeper. In my experience, the first answer rarely gets to the heart of the emotional concern.  Probing deeper allows the mediator to find out what is really going on.  

Once the emotional need is discovered, the skilled and trained mediator will address it.

I have learned over the years that simply acknowledging and addressing the emotional need does more good than anything.  It doesn’t need to necessarily resolve in a way that the emotional party may want, however.  Rather, simply acknowledging the emotional need can go a long way for a person to let go and choose the more rational outcome.

In the example of the spouse not wanting to pay support described above, the wife agreed to pay alimony in the end.  While she wasn’t happy about it, she understood that it was what needed to happen.  Although she was very angry and emotional about the issue, she was able to release the block keeping her from agreeing once we spent time during the mediation acknowledging and validating her feelings about the issue. Helping the other party see why this issue made her upset went a long way too.  Touching the emotional need doesn’t always mean that the case is settled in the way the emotional need would dictate.  Instead, it is more about uncovering and acknowledging it.

Mediation Training

Numbers vs Feelings: Different Perspectives in Mediation

Setting the Table for Settlement:  How to make the environment in your office conducive to settling the case

By: Shawn Weber, Esq.,  FRI Founder, Attorney, Mediator, Collaborative Divorce Practitioner

©2017 By Shawn Weber

Having mediated divorce cases my entire career, I have learned that the space in which the negotiations take place can have a huge impact on whether we can get to “yes.”  If the room does not promote settlement, it can actually hurt.  With a safe space, your mediation skills will make a larger impact.

family courtI first started to notice this phenomenon when volunteering as a Settlement Conference Judge at the Family Court in San Diego.  The environment at the San Diego Family Court (before it moved to the new and beautiful courthouse in San Diego) was really bad.  I was forced to sit with the parties and try to get them to reach a settlement in the lobby of the courthouse at non-private tables just outside the courtroom.

The environment at the courthouse was stressful anyway because it was the same location where litigation happened.  Furthermore, because the tables were in the lobby and not private, it was hard for parties to focus on their cases.  Sometimes other attorneys would interrupt to say “hello”.  Furthermore, the sheriff with his side arm was ever present.  Other people who were there for their own cases were present in the room.  Let’s just say that the environment was very stressful. As a result, parties did not feel safe.  It was hard to settle in spite of my mediation skills.

In contrast, sometimes counsel would hire me to mediate the same case after the mandatory settlement conference with great success at my office, where I control the atmosphere in ways to encourage settlement.  In fact, I have learned that certain conditions must exist before a case will settle:

  • The space must lack distraction.
  • The parties must feel safe.
  • The parties must be able to be calm and relaxed.

Here’s what I do to encourage those conditions.

divorce mediation conference room furniture

A mediator’s office should look less like a law office and more like a home.

Once, I had an argument with my interior designer about a piece of furniture I had selected for my small conference room, where I do most of my divorce mediation.  She complained that it didn’t look like a piece that would be in a professional law office.  It was more appropriate in someone’s dining or living room.  It was at that moment that I knew I had made the right choice.  When I explained to my designer that I liked the piece precisely because looked like it belonged in a home instead of a law office, I saw the light go on.  She got it.  We then made the conference room look comfortable and homey.  From then on, my requirement for any new furniture was that it could not look like it belonged in a lawyer’s office.

People do not feel as safe in a lawyer’s office as they do in a home.  I make a point of moving as far away from “traditional legal” design as I can get.  No large oak bookcases filled with law books.  No “goddess of justice” with her blindfold and scales.  And never- under any circumstances- will there be a gavel.  (I received a reward one time with a plaque that featured a gavel.  I keep it hidden away from the client’s view in my working office.)

dolphin lawyer painting and furniture

Colors should be relaxing and calming.

Colors can do so much to set the mood of a space.  The effect of color on one’s mood can be so powerful that there is an entire field of “color psychology”.  Leslie Harrington, a color consultant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, was quoted that, “Color is a universal, nonverbal language, and we all intuitively know how to speak it….  What color you paint your walls isn’t just a matter of aesthetics.  It’s a tool for your mediation skills that can be leveraged to affect emotions and behavior.”[1]

calming color

As a secondary color, we went with a light brown, which conjures a feeling of strength and reliability. Viewed as solid, natural and down-to-earth, brown is often linked to resilience, dependability, security, and safety.[4]  One commenter wrote, “Brown is a color that oozes security. It symbolizes HOME, contentment and peace and quietness. The browns are colors of good furniture and favorable smells thus imparting happiness.”[5]

Consider essential oils.

essential oil diffuser

Massage therapists and spas have long known the benefits of aroma therapy for relaxation.  To spread a calming scent throughout our office, we use the Dewdrop Design Home Diffuser from Young Living Essential Oils.   Coming with an essential oil starter kid, it cost around $89.  For stress relief, our favorite oil cocktail is lavender mixed with citrus.  We also like the Young Living blend called Stress Away, which is a pleasant blend of Copaiba, Lime, Cedarwood, Vanilla, Ocotea, and Lavender.

There are many essential oil options on the market as well as many studies about the effectiveness of aroma therapy.  One study showed that “aromatherapy reduced anxiety, increased sleep, and stabilized the [blood pressure] of patients undergoing cardiac stent insertion.”[6]  Another study showed that aroma therapy significantly reduced stress responses in high school adolescents.[7]  Yet another study at the University of Montana showed that a treatment group who inhaled essential oils consisting of clary sage, chamomile and lavender “reported lower levels of anxiety and stress, and increased levels of sleep quality and energy. The control group, in contrast, reported higher levels of anxiety and stress, and decreased levels of sleep quality and energy. The results suggest aroma inhalation may reduce stress among college students.”[8]

essential oil

No matter where the science falls for us, the oils simply help create a low stress environment, which does a lot to pull people out of fight or flight so that they can make rational decisions.  It simply enhances your mediation skills by encouraging settlement.

However, I have also learned to be careful.  The scent should be subtle.  Making the smells overpoweringly strong is distracting.  So, have fun with it and use the oils to help make your mediation environment relaxing and calm, but don’t overdo it.

Have Food.

When I was a child, visiting my grandparents was a special treat.  They lived two hours away by car.  The routine was always the same.  We’d arrive in the driveway and they would greet us with open arms and love.  Then they would prepare a wonderful lunch.  We’d gather around the table and eat together. The food, though never fancy, was comforting. It was a ritual that brought us closer and encouraged conversation.  Today, my wife and I try to have regular family meals.  There is just something about eating together.

I’ve learned to apply the power of food in my mediations.

We don’t overdo it, but an element of comforting food at the center of the table can go a long way.  Experience shows that chocolate can be the great elixir of settlement.  Having muffins and coffee can be very nice and add to a “homey” atmosphere.  A little bit of candy is a nice touch.  Also, health snacks like trail mix, nuts or fruit can help folks replenish a little bit.  Bananas with their high dosage of potassium can help with fatigue.

Not only adding to a relaxed, homey atmosphere, the food gives the mediator some information too.  If you have ever watched a cat approach food, you will notice that the cat will look over its shoulder and approach the food very carefully.  It’s not just because the cat is a nervous wreck.  It’s watching out for predators before it will allow itself to be vulnerable and eat.  If you watch animals in the wild eat, you may notice the same thing.

People eat when they feel safe.

People aren’t much different.  I have learned that a party in a mediation won’t eat unless he or she feels safe.  If the stress is high, the snacks often remain untouched.  I might model behavior as part of my mediation skills and start eating myself- showing that the environment is safe.  I observe who eats and who doesn’t eat.  If a party refuses to partake of anything, I get one set of data.  Conversely, if a party eats all the chocolates in a bowl in ten minutes, one might think there is some stress eating going on.

Relaxing Music.

Relaxing music can also go a long way to set a calm mood.  Often my clients are upset when they arrive.  I usually just go on YouTube and find something appropriate to pipe through the speakers at the front desk.  I keep the volume down.  Just enough to set the mood is fine.  It can also serve as some white noise to help with masking upset voices coming from behind doors.  (Additionally, I sometimes use a white noise machine in the waiting room to help with confidentiality especially when voices are raised.)  Be careful of your music choice, however.  Some classical music can be extremely agitating.  Whatever you choose, make sure it is soothing.

A Neat, Clean Space.

messy officeWhen I work, I have a tendency to have files everywhere.  It’s my working style—managed chaos.  That may be fine for me (probably not really)—but chaos not so great when you are trying to use your mediation skills to help people feel safe and be calm.  In fact, when things are messy, it adds to stress.

I once visited a colleague’s office for a mediation where I served as advising counsel.  I knew the moment I arrived that the case would not settle.  There were boxes in the hallways, post-its all over the walls and papers everywhere.  I could see my client’s agitation level rise the moment he walked in the office.  It was chaotic and things did not go well.  According to Sherry Burton Ways, an interior designer, color therapist, and author of Feel Good Spaces: A Guide to Decorating Your Home for Body, Mind And Spirit, “Mess equals stress.”[9]


office plant for mediation environmentPlants bring life to a space.  According to Burton Ways, “Integrating plants in the work environment not only beautifies the environment but has been proven to reduce absenteeism, reduce stress, lower blood pressure, increase positive feelings, lower noise levels, decrease room temperature and lower humidity.”[10]  Some studies have found that benefits of potted plants in an environment include lower blood pressure, improved reaction times, increases attentiveness, improved well-being, improved perceptions of the space and lower levels of anxiety.[11]

One study conducted in 2010 found strong evidence that office plants can reduce stress and negative mood states. Subjects who had plants placed around their offices showed reduction in stress levels and negative feelings by 30 to 60%, whereas environments without plants showed increases in stress and negativity by 20 to 40%.[12]

A Calm Space.

Early in my legal my career, I worked in a high-stress office.  It was always a hustle and bustle.  People would often yell or swear.  Staff would yell from office to office as they hurried through their high-speed day.  The informality was great for the high-paced litigation world.  But I found that my mediation clients did not react well.  The sheer volume and noise were distracting.  Worse, the stress created by all that negative energy was contagious.  I watched as my clients looking for a refuge were bombarded by chaos.  It made them feel uneasy and increased their anxiety.

As a result, we now have a policy against raising our voice.  Shouting from office to office is discouraged.  If there is a crisis, we keep it away from the clients.


Parties in a family law or divorce mediation come to us at a crisis in their lives. Hence, essential mediation skills include the ability to produce a feeling of a refuge from the storm.  Your office space can either help or hinder the parties feeling safe and ready to negotiate.    So, take the time to take inventory of your environment.  Pay attention to the details.  Set the table for settlement.  As a result, your clients will thank you.

dolphin lawyering relax

Shawn Weber is a master mediator and co-founder of Family Resolution Institute.  For more information about Shawn Weber and his unique Dolphin Lawyering approach to family law, visit www.WeberDisputeResolution.com.

Interested in improving your mediation skills?

Take our next divorce mediation training!


[1] “Color Psychology: How to Make Your Home Feel Good, David Freeman,” WebMd, http://www.webmd.com/women/home-health-and-safety-9/color-psychology visited on June 23, 2017.

[2] “How Paint Color Affects Mood,” Newlight Painting, https://www.newlifepainting.com/blog/how-paint-color-affects-mood visited on June 23, 2017.

[3]“The Color Psychology of Blue,” Verywell.com,  https://www.verywell.com/the-color-psychology-of-blue-2795815 visited on June 29, 2017.

[4] “The Color Psychology of Brown,” Verywell.com, https://www.verywell.com/the-color-psychology-of-brown-2795816 visited on June 29, 2017.

[5] Id.

[6] “Effects of Aromatherapy on the Anxiety, Vital Signs, and Sleep Quality of Percutaneous Coronary Intervention Patients in Intensive Care Units,” Mi-Yeon Cho, Eun Sil Min, Myung-Haeng Hur, and Myeong Soo Lee,  National Center for Biotechnology Information, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3588400/ visited on 6/30/2017.

[7]“The effects of aromatherapy on stress and stress responses in adolescents,” J Korean Acad Nurs. 2009 Jun;39(3):357-65. doi: 10.4040/jkan.2009.39.3.357 abstracted at   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19571632 visited on 6/30/2017.

[8] Sangwin, McKinley J., “A Study on Stress and Aromatherapy Intervention Efficacy” (2016). Undergraduate Theses and Professional Papers. Paper 73 cited at http://scholarworks.umt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=utpp visted on 6/30/2017.

[9] Sherry Burton Ways as quoted in “How To Create A Stress-Free Work Environment,” by Jacquleyn Smith, Forbes, 11/18/2003, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2013/11/18/how-to-create-a-stress-free-workplace-environment/#4119c762f8cc visited on 7/11/2017.

[10] Id.

[11] Kaplan, Jonathan S., “Plants Make You Feel Better: The Positive Impact of Nature,” Psychology Today, 05/11/2009, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/urban-mindfulness/200903/plants-make-you-feel-better visited on 7/11/2017.

[12] “The positive effects of office plants,” Nursery Papers: Technical, July 2010, Issue No. 6, https://www.ngia.com.au/Attachment?Action=Download&Attachment_id=1430 visited on 7/11/2017.

Mediation Training

Crucial Divorce Mediation Skill: Keeping Your Eye on the Emotional Need

How a Mediation Career Changed My Life: personally and professionally.

By Shawn Skillin, Esq., Family Resolution Institute Trainer and Co-Founder

My Previous Life

In my first professional life, I was a nurse.  Then I got this crazy idea to go to law school.  As a nurse I worked in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, I was certified as a critical care nurse and as a trauma resuscitation nurse.  This meant I went to the ER for new trauma’s and went on “Codes” where ever they happened in the hospital.  It was the exciting hardcore stuff and I loved it.

Whemediation careern I went to law school, I thought the equivalent of the hardcore stuff would be litigation.  I mean how bad could it be, no one would die.  Then I started litigating.  I liked it, it was exciting, but it took a toll.  It wasn’t very predictable, there was no policy and procedure manual.  Ask five lawyers (or judges) the same question and I got five different answers.

To make matters worse, I missed the teamwork and camaraderie of the hospital with everyone working together to a common goal.  Divorce lawyers didn’t really work that way…

One of my colleagues suggested I would like a mediation career, so I signed up for a training.  I instantly felt at home.  It felt educational, collaborative, constructive and rewarding to me.  I felt much more in control.

A New Mediation Career

So off I went on a new professional adventure in my new mediation career.  I was in control of my hours and case load, no more ex parte hearings at the last minute, many fewer client crises.  I was educating clients, helping them solve their own problems and I was much happier.  As I attended more training and developed my skills, I became a better listener and learned to let go of the “outcomes”, after all, they belonged to my clients.  I was in charge of the process, they were in charge of the outcome.

What’s more, my new skills translated into other areas of my life.  I was better with my kids, little league and soccer parents and my siblings (a miracle in itself).  I tried to see my Husband’s side of things (warning, limited success here.)

If you are looking for a change in your profession, whether you are a lawyer, mental health professional or financial professional, consider giving a mediation career a try.

“Fair” is the F-Word!

To Caucus or Not to Caucus?    5 Circumstances When It’s Really Helpful

“Fair” is the F-Word!

divorce mediation, fair

Why “Fair” Is The F-Word

Our Co-founder and mediation trainer, Shawn Weber, J.D., recently wrote a post on his personal blog about why “FAIR” is a terrible word to use in mediation.  Really, a good mediator will move people away from fictional and hard to define concepts like “fair” or “justice” and guide them towards concepts such as the “good business decision” and “agreements we can live with.”

Read Shawn’s complete post here: Why “Fair” is the F-Word in Divorce Negotiations

Numbers vs Feelings: Different Perspectives in Mediation

By: Shawn D. Skillin, Esq.,  FRI Founder, Attorney, Mediator, Collaborative Divorce Practitioner ©2015 By Shawn D. Skillin

In divorce mediation, there is almost always a numbers person and a feelings person.  The numbers person was probably what I refer to as the “Managing Partner” in the marriage.  The person who balanced the accounts, took care of getting the bills paid and the taxes done, made the investment decisions, etc.  This spouse was often the more organized and logical partner in the marriage.  They are more logical in their decision making and often have a good grasp on how this divorce thing is going to look from a logical perspective.  They are often focused on practical matters:  schedules, finances, logistics.

The other spouse is often the “feelings” person.  Numbers aren’t really first and foremost in this person’s mind.  They are worried about where they will live, will they have enough money, are the children going to be ok, will they ever find love again.  They are often slower to process the practical issues of divorce.

How do you bring these two parties together into a space where decisions and planning can take place?  It’s not always easy.  Recognizing where each person is coming from is the first key.  You have to take each client “where they are at.”  You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, so once you’ve identified this problem, start chipping away at the sharp edges.

Help the “numbers person” to recognize that the “feelings person” needs some time to process their feelings so they can take in the practical information and be ready to make decisions that will stick.  Pushing them forward too quickly will only result in a one step forward, two steps back scenario that ultimately frustrates the “numbers person” even more.  With the numbers person, my favorite saying is “slower is faster.”

Assist the “feelings person” by acknowledging their feelings, but gently reminding them that being involved in the decision making process requires their active participation.  Help them figure out what they need to help them move forward.  Gently remind them, that if they fail to make any progress, the other person may ultimately get so frustrated they will end up in court just to move things along.  Help them to outline what information they need and what resources they may need utilize to help them move forward.  Set deadlines for getting certain tasks done.

By acknowledging where each party is, the mediator helps normalize the situation for both parties.  This can make everyone feel heard and more comfortable in moving forward.