We all know that families don’t look the same as they did 50 years ago.  Whether multi-generational, multi-cultural, blended, single parent, two moms, or two dads, diversity reigns supreme when it comes to describing family in the 21st century.   Opening up that bag of diversity can expand our sensibilities, and it also can lead to drama.  Sometimes, it takes a neutral third party to help sort things out.

I recently met with two sisters who were completely at odds about their aging Mother.  My first impression was that they were obviously as different from each other as they could be, and after listening to them for a few minutes, two things became crystal clear: first, they both adored their Mother, and second, they spoke completely different money languages.  

I generally start all mediations in the same way, by asking the parties in conflict to share what goals they hope to achieve in mediation. Each sister told me that she wanted to figure out a way to get on the same page with the other about their Mother’s expenses. The older sister seemed dismissive about her sibling’s concerns that their Mother was going to run out of money.  The younger sister, on the other hand, was infuriated by her sibling’s seemingly cavalier attitude.

After listening for a few minutes, I helped shift the focus away from money and back to the obvious love and concern each had for her Mother. Then I asked them to show me some family photos on their phones. Literally within seconds, both sisters realized that they had far more in common than not. Building upon their good intentions and pointing out that they were co-captains of Team Mother, we were able to make some changes to the way the finances were being handled. The sisters also agreed to re-evaluate the new financial plan in six months, allowing for things to be tweaked if necessary.

Family drama sometimes happens when apologies interfere with grudges.  Let’s face it, not all apologies are sincere, and we all know people who enjoy holding onto a grudge.  What’s a mediator to do in that situation?  I’ll never forget the mother-in-law who, for a dozen years, refused to accept her son’s choice of spouse in spite of the couple’s repeated conciliatory efforts.  The mother-in-law was so invested in her grudge that she chose to deny the existence of her grandchildren because they were of mixed race.  The conversation in my office was loud and heated, mainly between the two women.   I let it go on for a  bit, and then I asked for the husband to weigh in. He completely rose to the occasion.  While maintaining respect for his mother, he definitely had his wife’s back, and pointed out that not only was his mom missing out on being a grandmother, his children were being denied the ability to enjoy a very special relationship.  That perspective was all it took for the grudge to be released.

Sometimes family drama needs a referee.