Jim was a man of great pride. He began his career in construction early in life. His father taught him the importance of good work ethic and drive for a better way of life than his father was able to provide his family. After some success, Jim started a family of his own with his high school sweetheart, Marie. Soon after, 2-children followed.
I met Jim and Marie at a difficult point in their life. They had decided to divorce. Their ability to communicate with one another had deteriorated to the level of needing a mediator to help them through the critical process of determining how they would create a new experience for their children given the reality of their situation.
I listened as they both described enough history to give me the context I needed to be helpful. Through both of the opening statements, I would come to understand that Jim’s career had taken off, having built several successful businesses, while his marriage and his family mostly went unattended. Marie was handed over the role of parenting their two young children. Both Jim and Marie articulated that Jim’s drive for work ultimately alienated him from those who loved him most. Resulting in missed commitments, absence from essential milestones, and most importantly, not being emotionally or physically present as a husband to Marie and father to their children.
As with many mediations, both parties went right to the content of the conversation – arguing about residential schedules, holidays, pick up and drop off, summers schedules, and so on. Both were digging in, and little forward movement was happening.
Marie seemed mainly fixed on what she wanted and not open to negotiating. At one point, I decided they needed to restart the conversation with heart. I encouraged them to articulate to one another what they most wanted for themselves, for one another and for their children.
With clarity and immediacy, Maries said, “For me, I want him to apologize. I want him to acknowledge that he promised until death does us part, but instead, it was this work that did us apart! So what I want for him,” she paused, “I want him to be a father to our sons.” And then the tears came. “I want our sons to know what it is like to have a man in their l lives. I want them to grow up and know how to be a husband and father.”
I turned to Jim. Tears were rolling down his face. He was sobbing uncontrollably. He didn’t’ know what to say. I asked him the same question. To which he couldn’t answer. Both were silent.
I decided to call a caucus. This allows both parties to spend time with the mediator. Often used when there appears to be an impasse. Mediators may attempt to coach and help clients get unstuck.
I asked Jim why he had such a strong emotional reaction. He could barely speak. “I haven’t cried since middle school. I don’t know why all of this coming up, and I don’t know why I can’t control it.” We sat together. We talked through the tears. I asked, “What did you hear Marie say she wanted?” He replied, “Well, that is the issue. What she wants is what I thought I was giving her. I thought I was providing a home, all of the things she and my boys wanted, and today for the first time I realize it wasn’t the physical home or the opportunities the work provided, it was my presence she most wanted. I made a huge mistake. One I don’t know how to make right.” I stayed with him as best I could. I’m not a therapist, but I am a human. I asked him if he had ever articulated what he wanted to her. He hadn’t. I followed with, “I wonder what it would be like for you to apologize to her, it sounds like you acknowledge you were wrong and you have regret, is the correct?” He replied, “Yes, and I can’t apologize.” I continued to probe and didn’t get a response.
To me it seemed so simple, he was wrong, he acknowledges it, and she is asking for it, apologize! I recalled my training in influence, specifically not assuming that he isn’t doing it because he isn’t motivated, but because there may be other forces at play.
Armed with that knowledge, I leaned into the challenge. “You say you can’t apologize, why is that?” he said, “I don’t know why.” I asked, “If you did know why, what would the answer be?” He softened, looked me in the eyes, “I embarrassed to say….” I followed, “I’m am not here to judge I am here to be helpful.” He replied, “don’t know how.” I would come to learn that Jim didn’t know how to put an apology together. This bright businessman who had succeeded in his industry didn’t know how to apologize.
So, instead of trying to motivate him – I became a coach. I taught him how to frame an apology:
Lead with, “I was wrong for…..”
Followed by, “Is there anything I have missed?”
Ending with, “How can I make this right?”
I had him write out the above. We role played and practiced for a few minutes. It wasn’t perfect, and didn’t’ get to perfect, but it was good enough to move the conversation forward when Marie returned.
Here is the point. It is easy for us humans to assume people are not doing something so simple because they are not motivated. And that simple diagnosis often leads to simple solutions that don’t work. If I had become a cheerleader and focused on motivating him to apologize, not recognizing there was an ability issue, I would have failed to see that what he needed was a teacher first and a motivator second.
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**Names in this article were changed to ensure anonymity.
Originally published at www.linkedin.com