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Talking Instead of Fighting: Dealing with Family Conflicts through the Power of Mediation

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Anyone who has ever experienced a family conflict knows that the rifts they cause can run very deep – deep enough to sever the ties between brother and sister, parent and child, and parent and grandparent. Here at AgingOptions we have witnessed hundreds if not thousands of examples of families dividing over a wide range of issues, often involving how to care for an aging parent. In our professional practice, we have seen many families handle conflict poorly, resulting in the destruction of family harmony. Fortunately, though, we have also seen hundreds of examples of families handling conflict in ways that are appropriate and healthy, through professional mediation – resulting in healed relationships and restored family unity.

Seek a Neutral Party

The NextAvenue website is where we located this article just a few days ago, titled “How Mediation Can Resolve a Family Conflict.” Written by reporter Julyne Derrick, the article makes what we think is a simple but very important point: “When relationships are at stake,” Derrick writes, “a neutral party can make a difference.”  This idea is reflected in the legal dictionary definition of mediation, which is the settlement of a dispute between two or more contending parties – in this case, family members – by setting up an independent person, referred to as a mediator, to aid them in settling their disagreement. The chief area in which we take issue with Derrick’s recommendation lies in how a family chooses a mediator: she seems to suggest that it’s okay to find a mediator online or ask around for referrals. We urge you to take a different, more deliberate approach, as we’ll discuss in a moment.

The NextAvenue article begins by briefly describing a sad but true story. “It’s the sort of thing that can ruin a family,” Derrick writes. “An elderly widowed father is no longer able to live at home alone. His daughter is willing to move him into her own home, but she wants help from time to time from her brother and his family who live nearby. Her brother believes the best place for dad is in a nursing home. Fights break out over the phone. A lifelong, tight-knit bond is broken between the siblings and their respective families.” In this case, the daughter (who is now 80 and recounting the story for NextAvenue) got her way, but the lingering resentment split the family in two, and a once-close pair of siblings severed ties with one another, never making amends. Both the dad and the brother died within a few years after the blow-up, and today the sister is left with a load of regret over a family bond that was never restored. “I wish I knew then about mediation,” the daughter said more than two decades after the relationship breakdown. “Maybe something could have been done.”

Key Principles of Mediation

In the article the author explains a few key principles concerning mediation. Participation in the process, Derrick writes, must be voluntary: coercing a family member into joining a mediation effort is probably a recipe for failure. Ideally, the mediation sessions, of which there will probably be more than one, must be face to face, in person around the same table if at all possible, not over the phone or by video conference. It’s also best if the family members are clear in advance on the purpose of mediation so expectations are in alignment. This is something a good professional mediator can establish up front as the conversations begin. “Sometimes,” says author Derrick, “the goal of mediation is to express hopes and needs. Sometimes it is to put a solid plan into place. Sometimes, it’s just to open up lines of communication. But it can go deeper than this. If done correctly, relationships can be deepened and salvaged through mediation.”

But as we said above, here’s where we take issue with the approach recommended by NextAvenue. As Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions says, “Mediation is all well and good. It’s always better to resolve conflicts amiably and to find common ground. The problem,” he cautions, “is that many so-called mediators are well-intentioned but ultimately unqualified to deal with some of the complex legal issues that can often divide families. Choosing the right mediator is absolutely vital, or you could end up making the problem worse.” We think the NextAvenue article raises what seem to us like major red flags when it describes some of the more common reasons why families seek mediation: estate and trust issues, living arrangements for an aging loved one, medical care for a parent, naming a power of attorney, and how to care for and ultimately dispose of a parent’s home when Mom or Dad can no longer live there. These all involve potentially complex legal and financial issues, demanding the services of a mediator who knows the territory well, not the well-meaning advice of a sympathetic amateur.

Choose the Right Guide

As Rajiv says, “If you’re planning on climbing Mount Rainier, you need a guide who has done it many times before – not somebody you just found online.” So what’s the solution? Based on nearly two decades of experience with potentially divisive family matters, we recommend a type of mediation we call a family conference, in which we bring all the affected parties together in one of our offices under the guidance of a thoroughly-trained, experienced attorney. We can’t count the number of times when we’ve seen families come to the table fractured and confused only to leave with a sense of unity and clarity. Ideally the family conference is something Mom and Dad convene well in advance of a health care crisis, giving everyone in the family an opportunity to gain a clear understanding of each one’s roles and responsibilities as the parents age. If this brand of professional mediation sounds interesting to you, please contact us and let us walk you through the process. You’ll be very glad you did, and so will those you love.

Fitting the Pieces Together

This kind of intentional planning is at the heart of what we refer to as LifePlanning, an approach to retirement planning that is far different from the typical piecemeal tactics that others employ. In a LifePlan, all the key elements of retirement planning actually work in harmony: financial, legal, medical, housing and family, like interlocking pieces of a puzzle. You’ll find that a LifePlan can be the key to establishing the kind of secure and positive retirement you’ve always hoped for.

Why not take the next step and find out more about LifePlanning? There’s a highly informative, no-cost way to do just that: join Rajiv Nagaich at a free AgingOptions LifePlanning Seminar. We hold these very popular events at locations throughout the Puget Sound region, and you can register for seminar of your choice by visiting our Live Events tab and signing up online. Please feel free to call us this week if we can assist you with registration or if we can answer questions. Rajiv will look forward to meeting you!

(originally reported at

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