• April 13, 2023

What happens at the intake session in parenting mediation?

intake session is an important first step in parenting mediation

The intake session is the first step in the mediation process and is an important opportunity for you to help the mediator understand your perspective. Taking an honest and transparent approach to the intake session will help you get the best out of the mediation process.

Intake is a confidential and candid conversation between you and the mediator

The intake session is a private and confidential discussion that lasts about an hour to an hour and a half whereby the mediator has three main objectives to explore and understand during the session:

Gain insight and understanding of your perspective on the co-parenting relationship.

Gain insight and understanding of the issues and topics you would like to discuss at mediation.

Gain insight and understanding of what outcomes you would like to achieve through mediation.

The above objectives are the most important, but at the same time, there’s a lot more learnings happening for the mediator and client during the session, which we’ll explore further below.

Ensure the mediator understands your perspective during the intake session

For most people, the idea of family mediation makes sense as alternative to court, but is still a process they approach with fear, anxiety and stress. The intake session can alleviate some of these powerful emotions in several ways. Firstly, it’s a chance for each party to familiarise themselves with the mediator and ask questions about the process and what happens in mediation; knowing what to expect can help parties prepare for the mediation.

The mediator will be interested in your perspective and will ask a lot of questions, covering topics like communication with the other parent and what each party would consider to be the best outcomes for the children. Mediators are excellent listeners and highly skilled at helping you speak honestly about your goals as well as your concerns regarding mediation. If you feel a certain way about something, it’s important the mediator understands how you came to this conclusion. At the end of the conversation, the mediator should understand what you would like for your children, and why you believe this is the best outcome.

 Talking about hard things with the mediator during the intake session

The mediator also uses the intake session to assess whether your situation is appropriate for mediation. In some situations, following the intake session with both parties the mediator may decide the matter is not appropriate for mediation. These circumstances may include (but aren’t limited to) when a child or adult’s safety is at risk, or one or both parties’ capacity to make decisions in the best interest of the children is impacted by addiction, mental illness, a serious imbalance of power between parties or serious allegations of abuse – physical, sexual or psychological. These are all serious issues that could impact whether the mediator believes the matter is best handled via the court process.

Mediators can work with parties even if there has been a history of family violence, so it is important that parties are honest and transparent about the history of conflict in the relationship. While having uncomfortable and challenging conversations with a stranger (in this case, the mediator), can be fraught, it’s helpful to understand that mediators are used to discussing these things and are familiar with the many reasons people find themselves in a situation where they need the help of a mediator. Mediators don’t judge people – they are there to listen and get a deeper understanding of your circumstances and how you propose to move forward.

The intake session helps the mediator understand what went wrong in negotiations

It helps the mediator to understand from each party why they have been unsuccessful in negotiating co-parenting arrangements to this point. The answer to this question is often a mix of things – from the pattern and style of communication between parties through to parties’ inability to emotionally regulate when dealing with each other. Sometimes negotiations break down when a third party (for example grandparent or new partner) becomes involved.

It’s important the mediator has a good understanding of negotiating roadblocks as the mediator can tailor the proposed format of the mediation to factor in such issues. For example, if both parents are in high conflict and are unable to be child-focused in the presence of the other, then a shuttle mediation where each parent is kept separate and the mediator works between parties may be a sensible approach. This may also be a good approach if safety concerns are raised with the mediator. Some parties request a support person to attend the mediation with them. If this was an approach one party wanted to take, it would be appropriate to discuss this with the mediator during intake and explain to the mediator why this is a preferred approach.

The intake session is your chance to ask questions about the mediation process

The better prepared you can be in mediation, the more likely it is that an agreement will be reached that both parties can live with. Of course, that isn’t always the case, as both parties must bring an open mind to the negotiations and be able to be child-focused, too. The mediator will ask questions in the intake session aimed at helping parents think carefully about the arrangements they would like to see in place. The mediator will want to understand why each party believes in the arrangements they are proposing and how that might work in their current circumstances. And while the mediator will be asking a lot of questions in the session, it’s important that each party brings their own questions to the intake. Common questions include, what happens if we can’t agree? What happens if an agreement is reached and then one party breaks the agreement? Is the agreement legally binding? Can I have a lawyer with me? The important thing to remember is there is no ‘silly’ question – if you want to better understand any part of the process, ask the question.

Also, the mediator is bound by confidentiality, so cannot answer questions about what the other party said during their intake session.

The intake session can calm the nerves and bring confidence to the mediation process

Reiterating that for most people, mediation can induce negative emotions rising to the surface, the intake session goes some way to change parties’ perception of the value and importance of mediation.

Mediation is an excellent alternative to court, for several good reasons, and the informality of the process is one of them. At the end of the intake session, each party should walk away feeling understood and that they had been listened to. Ideally there will be some level of trust, respect and reassurance that the mediator is in control of the process and will ensure fairness throughout. No longer a stranger, following intake session the mediator now knows personal details regarding the breakdown of your relationship and importantly, how you see co-parenting working in the best interests of the kids moving forward.

Like you, the mediator is child-focused and there to help both parties put their differences aside and work towards a practical and workable co-parenting plan for the future so all children can thrive.  Bringing an open mind to the process is an important first step.

Author: Cath Pope

Family Dispute Practitioner, Fresh Start Mediation

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