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Feeling for the Right Thing to Say

December 22, 2013

How was I going to reach them?  There they sat, four grieving family members, silent, in shock, immovable, unapproachable, and at a complete loss, still, over the death of a loved one more than a year before.

Soon after the passing of a close family member, this dispute – over a potentially improvident business decision – had arisen which led to this mediation.

They were present because they knew at some level that they needed to be there, but they couldn’t see how or why they should engage in the conversation of negotiation and compromise.

They just couldn’t focus on that.

Imagine, for each of them, an edge in the voice, a rigid posture with arms folded across the chest, and angry and sometimes vacant stares, all as the mediation began, the tears of loss, regret, remorse, despair, not far behind.

My heart broke for them as we began our discussion.

At the same time, I felt that the dispute was inextricably intertwined with the grief they were still experiencing, the disabling emotions of the conflict adding to the anger, guilt, and disbelief at their loss.

I asked myself, how could they work through their grief and reach any closure over the family tragedy unless the dispute were separated from it and resolved first?

And then, how was I going to manage getting them to focus on resolving the dispute first so they could work on coming to terms with their grief and loss thereafter?

That was the toughest question.

Finally, the direction to take in the conversation became clear to me.  It was daring, it had nothing to do with the dispute, it was probably none of my business, and it had everything to do with what was going on with these disputants.

Feeling for the right thing to say, I asked them for a favor:

Could they just spend a few minutes and tell me about their loved one?

A flood of words met me at once.  The ice was broken.

I listened with an open heart to a lengthy, heartfelt and beautiful eulogy of a person of great integrity who loved each family member, a just and honest person who led the family and made all the best decisions, a problem-solver.

There it was, the gem I needed — their loved one was a problem-solver.

With as much empathy as I could muster, I suggested that perhaps their loved one would approve of this mediation as a way of solving the legal problem that was facing them, as a way of separating the problem from the grief, and as a way of starting on the path of finding closure.

They could see that.  I had reached them.

Negotiation began thereafter and the dispute resolved with a written settlement agreement several hours later.


David I. Karp is a full time mediator of real estate and business disputes, principally, in Southern California.  He likes to say that he “mediates at the heart of the dispute.”  His website is at .  He apologizes too for any ads affixed to this post by; they are not his.


From → Mediation

One Comment
  1. This is brilliant David. Well done!

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