Harold stood up, snapped his briefcase shut dramatically, tossed his coat over his arm, and gestured to his legal team. “We’re leaving. This is over.” He turned and marched purposefully toward the conference room door, leaving his attorneys scrambling to gather their papers and catch up.
“Hmmm,” I said. “I’m not sure of the best thing to say right now, Harold…Oh. No. I do know what to say.”
I had been mediating Harold and Emma’s (not their real names) pricey estate dispute all morning and now into the afternoon. The siblings, each in their early 70s, started several hundred thousand dollars apart in their opening demands and had made tremendous progress. Both were lovely to work with – and completely stuck in their negotiations over who would inherit what percent of their father’s estate.
Lovely except for their almost comically frequent use of the F-bomb. Two refined, well-educated, generally pleasant adults tossing out the F-word and other choice expletives every other sentence.
It was the last $5,000 dividing them that proved the hardest, and, it appeared, the downfall of the mediation’s almost-success. We’d spent an hour on that $5K, a pittance in the grand scheme of the money they were discussing, but powerfully symbolic nonetheless.
We’d patiently worked through the decade of frustration and anger over the way one felt burdened by caring for Dad, and the other felt cut out of decisionmaking during those 10 last years. We’d talked over what had happened, and more importantly, what they wanted to happen in their relationship for the remaining decade(s) of their own lives. Those discussions dramatically changed the money argument and brought them within $5,000 of resolving their legal case.
Each felt the other ought to pony up that last $5K, as a symbolic gesture of goodwill. Harold, it seemed, had just reached his end point, and suddenly he was up and striding toward the door. It looked like all their good work and desire to begin healing their fractured relationship was about to fall apart.
“Oh – no – I do know what to say,” I said. Harold paused at the door, his hand on the nob, his back to those of us still at the table.
“Harold, are you out of your effing mind?” I asked loudly. Except…I didn’t say “effing.”
It was out of my mouth before my brain could catch up with my tongue.
Harold’s hand remained on the knob. His sister’s eyes widened…the mediator had just dropped the F-bomb? Did she hear that right? The attorneys stopped shuffling papers, and the room grew very still.
Harold turned slowly around. I prepared myself for a well-deserved tongue-lashing.
He was grinning from ear to ear. “You’re right,” he said, “I am out of my f***ing mind.” He looked at his sister. “Split the difference and make it to the tapas bar in time for dinner?” She nodded her agreement.
I wouldn’t generally recommend directing an expletive at your client. I got lucky that day. Lucky that I didn’t cause a ruckus, lucky that Harold wasn’t so angry he’d file a complaint against me, lucky, lucky, lucky.
But I don’t regret for one moment challenging Harold’s dramatic gesture and bravely naming out loud the thing no one else could.