In early 2006, I mediated a dispute between two siblings in conflict over their mother’s estate. The total value of the estate was nearly $1 million and the financial stakes were high. These siblings were well into their 60s and had decades of both love and garbage between them. They’d already spent untold thousands of dollars litigating the matter when it landed at my mediation table.
It was messy and loving and frustrating and complicated — like life.
After four hours in mediation, the siblings had made tremendous progress. They’d talked out the things that frustrated them: One had done most of mom’s primary care in her last months. The other felt deliberately shut out by her brother. They’d had tension when dad had died but mom had kept things together. They’d expressed keen remorse for how their anger with each other had created an embarrassing scene at mom’s funeral.
And still they were stuck in divvying up the estate funds, about $5,000 apart. Not bad compared to where they’d started. Five thousand is a whole lot of dollars, yes. Yet not so many dollars when considered in the context of the hundreds of thousands they were disputing.
We spent an hour on that last $5,000 and no wiggle room seemed in sight. Many experienced mediators will tell you that the last few thousand dollars often seem to be the hardest. I took a break and walked around the block while they went to separate coffee shops for refreshments.
When we re-convened, I said, “It seems to me that the idea of fairly dividing that $5,000 is keeping you stuck. So let me flip your thinking for a minute: How could you fairly share that $5,000 instead of divide it?
We were drafting an agreement 10 minutes later.
That last $5,000? They had a loving solution: Donate $5,000 to Hurricane Katrina relief in the name of their mother.
How we frame the problems in our lives has such powerful impact on the solutions we see and can’t see.