By Simcha Van Bel-Du Plooy

“Problems are nothing but wake-up calls for creativity” (Gerhard Gershwarmer)

Mediation is a process of conflict or dispute resolution where two or more parties are involved. A mediator supports clients with negotiating and coming to an agreement about what is in the best interests of both parties involved. Often when clients come to mediation they carry with them, what can be defined as problem-saturated thoughts or ideas. This can slow and even hamper the process of mediation. The majority of people who choose mediation, do so, because it saves them from the costs of going through a legal battle in court. Driving solution-focused conversations is thus a key part of the process within successful mediation.

Individuals arriving at mediation (and counselling) may find themselves stuck in a ‘problem’ and can’t seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Thinking becomes absorbed in the problem that is being faced at that time. Why did this problem occur? Could it have been avoided? Who is responsible for having caused this problem? These questions are all very problem-focused and lead individuals to placing it in the centre of the process. In some cases, when one knows what has caused the problem, one can understand it better, leading to some useful insight, about the ‘problem’. This has not, however, created any distance from the problem and what can sometimes occur is a magnification of the problem. It basically has ‘all-eyes’ on it from every angle, and stands on a pedestal. This ‘problem fixated’ space can become heavy and can lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness. Not only can problem-focusing become exhausting, draining one’s motivation to find a solution, it is also very time-consuming. In situations, where time is limited, and for example, where every session is costing you financially, it is useful to find an approach that is time, and most importantly cost-effective.

When two parties are involved in a family dispute regarding co-parenting, children, or, financial aspects regarding the home or school, it is essential that the parties can work together. Focusing on the problem does not open the door to co-working in mediation and can result in two individuals following two very separate paths. In acknowledging successes the parties have previously had, and in leaving the past difficulties behind, clients can explore their hopes and dreams for the future in this new journey that they have embarked upon. Re-focusing on their co-strengths as well as their individual strengths in mediation is important. It is not only in the interest of the parties involved, but also in the interest of those secondary parties (e.g. children, extended family, friends and so on).

It is not only where difficult decisions are concerned, but also in day-to-day life, where problem-focused thinking can be detrimental. If traffic, for example, is perceived as a ‘problem’ in one’s life, then every day when you climb into the car to drive, your motivation is likely to be low, possibly resulting in frustration and anger while you drive with these ‘problem-focused’ thoughts. The negative feelings that result from this drive, can later spill over onto relationships and interactions with others throughout the day. Rather than the traffic being the daily focus when one climbs into the car, the destination may be a much more positive aspect of the journey to focus on.  Thus the drive is a positive experience because it ends at a destination which is positive. Or the drive serves as ‘quiet time’ after a busy day. Ultimately, when it is not an option to sit in traffic, the ‘problem’ can only be solved by creative thinking and a change in mind set. The change in mind set needs to be around how the time in the car is spent and what the purpose of this car journey serves in one’s life.
Creative changes in thinking are required when one is to assume a solution-focused position. One has to develop a radar that focuses on an alternative path – one that leads to a positive outcome. When the discussion is circling the problem and looking at it from different angles, there is generally limited room for movement towards a ‘solution’.

As such stages one needs to ask some key questions that focus on the present and future and away from the ‘problem’:

  1. What positive change has already taken place and what is already working?
  2. Who are my team of support that I can call on?  (E.g. family, friends, medical professionals etc.)
  3. Is there anything positive that I can observe?
  4. What is the outcome I would like?
  5. What makes me feel content?
  6. When do things seem better?
  7. What has this situation taught me about myself? (E.g. resilience, strength, determination)
  8. Will change occur and can this change be positive – if so, how?

These are some of the questions one can ask oneself, or explore in a safe therapeutic space. The focus, thus becomes on changing the angle at which we look towards. The ‘problem’, is taken off its pedestal and the possibility of change replaces it. In this case, one’s approach becomes ‘solution-focused’. In cases of mediation, working towards establishing how ‘positive change’ can help both parties and most importantly the children, is key. A solution-focused mind set encourages individuals and co-parents to become more aware of what they are capable of and what their strengths are. This means drawing from within as well as from one’s external support structure. In thinking towards a solution, one has to dig deep and become creative. It is ultimately very easy to list all the problems of the particular situation, be it during separation/ divorce or when faced with life challenges. The difficult part is to drive that solution-focused mind set, which requires a creative and optimistic approach.

Written works of Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, founders of the solution-focused approach.