Katherine Johnson-Grief and loss in mediation

This week I travelled to Sydney to attend a workshop presented by Katherine Johnson on “The Impact of Grief and Loss on The Effectiveness of Mediation Outcomes.” Katherine is a psychologist and lawyer and has recently completed her Phd on this topic. Her work is the culmination of 40 years work as a counselor and 20 years as a mediator, distilling her knowledge and wisdom in this area that has resulted organically from her work.


Katherine’s thesis will be released as a book later this year. It provides a new lense through which to view mediation involving relationships-how to understand them, and how to approach them for better individual, family and social outcomes. It is a very subtle and nuanced approach, and I do not profess in this short blog to be able to do justice to her theory. However, I was struck by the power and potential of her approach, and keen to confirm my sense of this for my own work and that of my community.


Katherine deals with all types of mediation, but I will discuss her ideas as I see them impacting on family disputes.


Every family law dispute takes place within a relationship, between the parents, but also in a context, culture and environment, each of which contribute in their own ways to the nature, intensity, duration, influence and meaning of the conflict. This can be viewed akin to chaos theory, where the flow of perceptions consisting of apparent uncertainties, non-linear contributions, and unpredictable aspects of behavior, all form facets of the dispute like a flickering flame.


Focusing on the loss felt by the parties, as the heart of their dispute, is seen as allowing for some of this chaos to be seen as a constantly changing set of ordered pattern formations, that form the values and beliefs of the parties. This insight becomes the building blocks for relational change to emerge.


Katherine’s process involves various steps:


  1. Acknowledging the loss
  2. Make sense of the loss
  3. Determine how this meaning fits into the world view of these parties-deconstructing the loss
  4. Move forward from the loss-use rational learning to assign new collective meaning to this loss
  5. Use rational learning for the parties to access their own means of justice as a way to better endure their loss


The first task is to facilitate the parties to be able to make sense of their loss. This is seen as commonly based on their loss of expectations arising from their relationship (perhaps they had expected a very different type of relationship) and the assumptions they had made (perhaps they had assumed that their relationship would have continued throughout their life). The process involves meaning reconstruction around this concept of loss for this unique situation and individual, and then the application of a methodology that enables the parties to engage to live better lives with their loss.


Katherine uses a normative benchmark of psychological research on basic responses to grief and loss-the NIS- to offer the parties a behavioural assignment, with which they can reinforce their rational thinking and engage their responsible actions during the mediation process. This promotes the grieving process by enabling them to chronicle their experiences of loss in such a way that this can be better endured outside the mediation process. Collectively acknowledging the effect of the grief on the ongoing relationship as parents assists to provide structures within this relationship for the losses to be better endured.


As we all know timing can be crucial in mediation and it must be the right process for the parties at this stage in their journey. Likewise the parties must be seen as ready, willing and able to deal with their loss and grief, and then be prepared to look for this better way to endure their loss.


The NIS is seen as a crucial and distinguishing feature. It consists of 10 guidelines against which the parties are invited to measure their level of grief, to decide whether they are ready, willing and able to move forward from their loss. They are presented with information based on psychological research around coping with grief and loss, and encouraged to creatively recombine existing components or ideas, with an open mind, to allow new connections to emerge. The stress arising from legal obligations around participation in decision-making is accommodated, and the parties use the process of relational learning to better understand their combined assumptions and expectations that form their world view. They “deconstruct the loss in order to redistribute the power so they can co-create a future through their collective relational learning that causes a grass-roots social change”.


Katherine describes the party’s initial identification with their loss as being in touch with the internal child or feeling self. She then talks of the need to move from this to talking of what this might mean and why, to being in touch with the adult self within. Finally, her aim is to get the parties to be able to see the bigger picture and see the situation from a collective point of view, or from the observer self. It is getting the parties to be able to view the situation from this observer self that is the key to being able to engage in relational learning.


Mindfulness and relational learning enable the parties to reconstruct their loss so that it can be better endured. The assumptions and expectations with which the parties enter mediation affect their personal world views and must be deconstructed through the NIS to produce a collective acknowledgement and the reconstruction of the meaning of loss. It is suggested that by focusing on understanding the loss from each parties’ perspective, and by collectively making sense of the loss, this enables the loss to be individually better endured, whether there is resolution or not!


The feelings of loss from the past are validated (felt by the child), and there is then an exploration of how things should have been (as seen by the adult) , to arrive at an understanding of how things are (through the observer self) and how they could be organized in the future. The collective approach to developing joint meaning around the loss, and acknowledgement and addressing of these losses by the collective, is seen as redistributing the power between the parties. The outcome or settlement is seen as a catalyst for an organic, grassroots change to the social fabric in which the parties co-relate. This becomes their “own means of justice around their losses.”


The parties are assisted to better interact with each other socially, economically, politically and environmentally. The quality of the conflict is changed from negative and destructive to positive and constructive. The parties are encouraged to explore and discuss the assumptions and expectations that brought them to the dispute and that can also lead them away from the dispute in a more humane, compassionate and collaborative manner.


I am fascinated by these ideas! If you are wanting to know more, I have some information I can share with you from Katherine, so that we might be able to have a conversation around these ideas. Contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions.

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