Child Focus and the Narrative Model of Dispute Resolution

This approach to mediation evolved from the narrative family therapy model developed in the mid 1980s. [1] It is based on the understanding that the way we interpret the world around us depends on our social and cultural background and experiences. In other words, the meaning we attribute to events, our reactions and point of view, are all a reflection of our own upbringing, parenting and cultural context. These provide patterns or habits of thought that are intrinsically part of who we are and how we operate, particularly in times of stress.[2] They enable us to look for explanations within this context which reinforce these patterns of response, and provide meaning and justification for our actions.

As Family Dispute Resolution Practitioners (FDRPs), we can often be confronted by two seemingly different versions of the same events leading up to and during a separation. Both can be presented coherently and genuinely as reflecting that person’s understanding of their experiences at that time. Yet they are not consistent, and cannot both be an accurate telling of the events. The narrative model would say that this is because each party is interpreting the events in the context of their individual social and cultural background, and have developed their own version of the story of these experiences. What aspects of events are given importance, which ones fade into the background and even disappear, depends on this story telling, and in a time of conflict, the script may be rehearsed and amended over time to become vastly different to that of others involved in the same events.

The underlying assumption is that we live our lives through the stories that we tell, and that our identity is based on how we construct these stories, and how they are then used to validate our actions. The key to altering action and relationships, is to work with these stories and use them to change the patterns of thoughts and habits of response. Conflict can be seen as the collision between these different versions of the same set of events. These stories have the power to shape experiences, influence mind-sets, and construct relationships. When looked at from this perspective, they are crucial in maintaining and resolving conflict.

The narrative model of dispute resolution provides an approach to conflict that looks for the “chink to let the light in”.  Once the story has been identified, and unpacked to disclose other parallel or underlying stories, then there can be the opportunity to find ways to alter these stories and move towards a new story that may exist along side that of the other party in a way that will not avoid collision and therefore conflict.

The steps to achieve this can be described as:

  • Determine what the relevant story is
    • Identify the story as tying together a series of individual life events based on an existing cultural world, woven to reinforce a particular meaning. See that it is based on assumptions about how the world is, how people should be, and how they should respond when the rules are broken.
  • View this as a constraint
    • The story provides for a person’s interests, emotions, and behaviours reflecting complex relationships in a particular cultural world, which has become internalized. Feelings are often part of this situation, but these can be seen as moveable, as the story shifts and changes.
  • Identify openings to an alternate story
    • Access the party’s story of hope by engaging in an alternate discourse. Participation in FDR can be seen as an indication of willingness to engage in a counter story, hope for something different.
  • Build an externalizing conversation as a bridge to this different version
    • Separate the person from the problem to allow for the person to separate from the conflict and allow room for an alternate story to emerge.
  • Engage in double listening to identify the conflict as well as the preferred story
    • Life is complex and multiple story lines can exist at the same time. Attending to more than one story simultaneously can allow for the observation of incongruity and the acknowledgement that different feelings may apply to different stories.
  • Listen for positioning
  • Re-author the relationship story
    • By asking strategic questions, and providing scaffolding, the parties build an alternate story, leading to how they would like their relationship to be in the future. This new story can then be used as the foundation for the formulation of agreement or resolution.
  • Document progress

In FDR all parties need to feel heard and understood in order to create a sufficiently sound working relationship, and work towards achieving the goals of the session. Where the stories are inconsistent and vastly different, we strive to identify common ground as a platform for the creation of some overlap between these stories and ultimately the development of a mutually acceptable story that they can both live with. An alternative approach may be to look to develop new stories that may not overlap, but can exist along side each other, avoiding the collision that results in conflict and acrimony. We can use our skills as questioners to lead the parties along this journey towards a new version of their story that will allow them to achieve their goals for the FDR.


One of these skills involves Child Focus.

Child focus is the ability to put the interests of the child ahead of the individual parent. To begin to construct a different story, a parent must be able to move away from the constraints of their world view at that time. Discussion around their children, their interests, developmental achievements, and strengths and weaknesses, can usually be guaranteed to facilitate a shift from that parent’s individual position. Understanding the unique needs of the individual children is a powerful tool to create room for an alternate story.


This can be enhanced by consideration of the objects and underlying principles of the Family Law Act, and the relevant social science information regarding age appropriate social and emotional development. There are three main ways that this can be undertaken:


  • Discussion of the child’s interests, the child’s experiences of separation, and the child’s needs from mediation;
  • Use of information about child development;
  • Use of programmes conducted by community organisations and child psychologists promoting child focus.


See my recent video as well as future Blogs for my thoughts on the types of questioning that can assist a party to move from an entrenched position to one where they are able to focus on the needs of their child.


[1] see Winslade, Monk and Cotter “Narrative Mediation:learning the grip of conflict” 2008 and Fisher and Brandon “Mediating Families” 2012 p 29

[2] Fisher and Brandon page 29

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