When I was a couples and family therapist I tried hard to explain to my clients what mediation was and how it differed from therapy. Often this distinction is crucially important; but it was a difficult thing to explain, not only because it’s not the easiest concept to grasp for clients, often distressed and confused clients, but also because we therapists and mediators need to face that there is real overlap despite the essential differences that we emphasise.

The fundamental difference between mediation and therapy boils down to the word “change”. Mediation is not a process to change a situation; it starts with the acceptance of a situation. Given the situation, what can we do to apply fairness to it? – sufficient fairness to be seen and accepted by all parties. This usually amounts to a fair division of some disputed thing, such that at the end of the process no party has all that they desire, but all can agree that the division has been fair, or as fair as possible.

Therapy, on the other hand, is about change above all. Failure to change is failure of therapy. In contrast to mediation, it is about not accepting the situation, but changing it. What we all – therapists and clients – want from the process of therapy is the unsticking of a stuck, static situation and its growth into something new. With therapy at its best, it grows not only into something new but something deeper and richer.  No wonder therapy usually takes more sessions than mediation.

I think those two paragraphs on change make the distinction clear. I am reluctant to mess that up now by describing the overlaps that smear the divide; but I think I must.  Because: there is a component of mediation in therapy; and in a family situation mediation can itself be therapeutic.

With a couple or family in the room, one of the processes that the therapist is facilitating is listening and understanding, i.e. of one client towards another.  Everyone is describing in turn how they see things, and everyone else is reacting.  In this sense, the therapist is mediating the discussion.  It is an essential prelude to change and a concomitant of change.

A therapeutic benefit is also a possible outcome of family mediation in its purest form, perhaps, for example, undertaken by a lawyer working on the terms of a couple’s separation and divorce. This benefit may be especially received by a child. Children are often weaponised in bitter disputes between parents and then used as the most deadly torpedoes in the fight. Needless to say, this deeply harms a child’s wellbeing and development.  If the mediation is successful, and through its fairness the sense of injustice in the parents is assuaged, then they can turn to thinking of their children not as a weapon of war but as people who need to feel the love and security given by both their parents.  So, mediation can be, and often is, therapeutic.