Some agreements ought to be in black and white, airtight, every possible contingency nailed down. High-conflict parties, threatening to derail a truce at the drop of a comma, need to consider and resolve every hypothetical uncertainty. Where trust is low and anger palpable, writing in ink may be their last chance to avoid court.
But when family members — with admittedly different interests — genuinely want what’s best for their children, siblings, parents (or even each other) it’s sometimes best to “write in pencil.”
Not the kind with a lead point. I’m talking about room to explore possibilities on a temporary basis before making a firm commitment. It’s often easier to agree to try something if you know you’re not irretrievably bound.
In mediation this can be done a number of ways:
–language that affirms trust and a mutual desire for flexibility (“The parties are working well together and believe they will be able to informally resolve any changes that may need to be made in the trial plan…”);
–a clearly defined trial period (90 days? Six months?);
–a written commitment to return to mediation if something doesn’t work or needs tweaking;
–compassionate provisions for contingencies such as illness, job loss, or transfer by a participant.
My friend Marilou and her siblings were worried about their 90-year-old mom living alone. Mom is mentally sharp and capable of managing her money, her meals, her life. She’s not ready to move. But as winter approached, the dangers of a fall on ice or power failure or Mom’s isolation in a snowstorm loomed large. She agreed to move into a senior residence just for winter, with the clear understanding she could return to her home in the spring. The kids kept the house ready, and brought Mom back to check on things whenever she wanted.
They were relieved to see their mother enter into the social life of her new residence. One day she said, “You know, I’m really enjoying this place.”
Whether Marilou’s mother returns to her own home and continues to use the senior residence for winters (sort of like “going to Florida”), or whether she decides to move permanently isn’t so important. However it turns out, everyone recognizes the choice is Mom’s, she’s willing to be flexible, and – most important — they can trust each other to work it out.
Writing in pencil works for this family.