As a mediator, I regularly encounter difficult family conflicts which come to me when they have gone on for years, tens of thousands of pounds have been spent by each party and there has been so much hurt caused by words said, and particularly written. Often at that point, people say to me, “this could have been avoided” or “I don’t understand how we got here”. Most of the time, they also blame each other and can’t see the role that they themselves have played in arriving at that point. When I start to ask questions about how it started, mostly I get the sense that someone took legal advice early and an aggressive letter before claim was then issued. At that point, it is human nature to armour up and defend yourself. The battle lines are drawn, and the wounds get deeper.
One of my favourite definitions of mediation is “a conversation that should have taken place a long time ago”. To give you an example, I recently mediated a situation between a mother and two daughters. The mother had been going through a divorce, which had not been finalised before her husband died. He had made a will cutting her out (in anticipation of the divorce settlement providing for her). He gave a substantial legacy to his two adult children, who then found themselves in conflict with their mother. She approached the Executors’ solicitors to ask for help and was rebuffed as she was not a beneficiary. Eventually she went to see a litigation lawyer and a claim was issued due to being close to limitation. Somewhat shocked, the daughters responded by taking legal advice and defending the claim. They then stopped speaking to each other. By the time the case reached mediation, all of them were saying that they wanted to rebuild their relationship and none of them could understand why they were in this situation. Settlement was relatively easy to reach on the day. I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened if the Executors’ solicitors had involved a mediator or family conflict coach at the beginning?
I care deeply about this work. I am driven by a desire to help families find peace and reconciliation without the need to engage in damaging litigation that can tear families apart, sometimes irreparably. I am a mediator, conflict coach and solicitor with a background in trust and probate litigation. I have seen first hand how traumatic such litigation can be for people. One client once described a long running family dispute as “a cancer that needs to be cut out”. I’ve never forgotten those words. In my work as a mediator, I draw on my background as a lawyer and my specialist private client mediation training. I am also a coach and the relationship coaching qualification I did taught me how to help people on a deeper level. I therefore always create considerable time and space for clients to speak to me individually so that they can begin to process some of the anger and emotion they so often feel. Only once this has been done, do people feel ready to consider a different perspective. Feedback confirms that I bring a high degree of empathy and emotional intelligence to my work and I am known for being sensitive when dealing with emotion.
So, what is family conflict coaching?
The process is bespoke because every family situation is so different. I start by offering each family member a free individual exploratory call over Zoom, for up to an hour. During that call I listen to the situation and explain how I can help. If all the family members are happy to engage me, then we move forwards together and a typical process would look like this:
1. Each family member sends me a private note in writing summarising their thoughts on the situation. To help, this will be in response to a series of questions from me. This is for my eyes only and will never be shared with the other family members.
2. Following that, I will arrange meetings with each family member, either face to face or on Zoom. During that meeting, I will give each family member time to expand on what they have written. We will explore that together. So often conflict starts by people not feeling truly heard or understood. Being given the time and space to air frustration and hurt is invaluable.
3. There will often be relevant documents which I need to see. If appropriate, I will ask the family to agree a bundle of documents to send to me. If that task would be too difficult due to the conflict between them, I will ask each family member to send me a list of the documents they think are relevant and I will then confirm which documents I wish to see. Sometimes there are legal proceedings in the background. As a qualified specialist contentious probate lawyer, I am well placed to understand the legal context and issues.
4. After I have met with the family members individually, I will then share my thoughts on what I think the family needs next. That may be further 1-2-1 sessions with me, or it may be that the family is ready to move forwards to a family meeting together. At a family meeting, I will use my mediation skills to help explain the various perspectives to each member of the family. So often at this stage it is clear to me that the intentions or actions of another have been misunderstood. There are often assumptions which have been made, which need to be dispelled. It may also be apparent that one or more family members are not ready to engage. Perhaps they need more time to process whatever emotions are getting in the way. If appropriate, at this stage I may recommend the assistance of a counsellor/therapist. It may also be necessary to co-create some ground rules for a family meeting so that everyone feels comfortable proceeding.
5. A family meeting can take place face to face or on Zoom. It does not necessarily need to involve everyone sitting round a table or in one breakout room – that can be too intense. We can have multiple rooms so that issues can continue to be explored confidentially and safely on a 1-2-1 basis. I can then take a shuttle mediation approach, where I relay messages in a careful way that is less likely to trigger an emotional reaction. Most of the time the end goal is to try to bring everyone together because often families engaging in family conflict coaching have a strong enough bond and desire to be a family going forwards. However, that is not always the case. It may be that the reason for engaging in family conflict coaching is more task than relationship specific, such as working out a way to care for an elderly parent or manage their finances together. In that case, it may be that agreeing something in writing feels more appropriate.
6. The ultimate goal of family conflict coaching is to help a family move forwards together with new perspectives and shared understandings, not just in relation to each other, but also their own thoughts and feelings. The family will hopefully feel able to communicate with each other safely, without the need for any professional input going forwards.
Finally, it’s important to note that family conflict coaching generally takes place without lawyers being directly involved. There may be private client lawyers in the background who have been engaged, but who have been unable to proceed with the estate administration due to the conflict between the beneficiaries or executors. Often it is just the family relationships which need some work rather than there being an actual legal dispute which could be handled by litigation lawyers. Hopefully once the family have resolved their differences through mediation, the estate administration can proceed. If successful, family conflict coaching should mean private client lawyers can avoid having to refer work out to litigation lawyers.
If you think I could help your family through a difficult time, please contact me for a chat. If you are a lawyer reading this and you think that I may be able to help unlock some of those thorny estates by working with your clients, please contact me. You can always bounce ideas off me even if it doesn’t end up with me being engaged formally.