Friday, June 17, 2011

A place to be heard

“Be prepared for deep anger, high emotion, blunt accusations, unashamed finger-pointing and heavy language. Let them go and let them get the pus out. That is how they will come to grips with the kaupapa. You will be surprised how often bitter enmity is brought out, debated and then buried to be supplanted by the catharsis of an emotional reunion of the whanau. The Mediation Conference does not allow for this process to take place.” John Te Manihera Chadwick "Acting as Counsel for the Child in Difficult Cases - He Mea Taka I Te Raruraru: The Intractable Case" (paper presented to New Zealand Law Society Family Law Conference, Welington, October 1995)

This quote is about the hui, which at its basic means nothing more than a gathering at a Maori Marae, a Maori meeting house.  The kaupapa means topic, and whanau means extended family. Essentially the author is saying there is great benefit in providing people a place where they can gather and lay out their emotions, a place that has certain rules, but provides the unloading that can finally lead to catharsis.

To a Westerner, this is almost blasphemous. We talk about the Golden Rule and turning the other cheek. For the record, I believe these are great ways to live, but they fail to answer our deepest need – our need to be heard. What would happen if we gave people this opportunity to be heard?

My work on children’s right to a lawyer in day-to-day care or custody cases has, over the years, left me with many reasons that children should have a lawyer in these cases, but none is more important than the fact that children have a right to be heard. Children do not necessarily need to have their wants and needs carry the day; they need to know that someone listened to them. There may be a shortage of research on the topic, but all, and I mean all, of the research that has occurred shows that the overwhelming majority of children just want someone to hear them. The outcome matters less, for some, it does not matter at all.

Why do we think it is different for adults?

I know it is not novel to suggest that the courtroom, especially the adversarial courtroom, is nothing more than a stage for people to vent, to make themselves heard, a place where their version gets just as much time as the ex-spouse’s version. Professionals talk about ways to stop this, making “relevance” objections and trying to get people to work it out in mediation. We remind parents that the past no longer matters, and ask them to focus on their children as they move forward.

The problem is that these parents, these parties, these litigants, never get to tell their story. Instead it becomes legally irrelevant to those who claim to be helping them navigate the most emotional process of their lives. I am not a psychologist; I leave that to others in the family. I am, however, a long-time yogi, and now a yoga teacher. Perhaps the greatest teaching I have obtained from yoga is that we can hold this stuff inside for years, but eventually it is going to come out, and when it does, it is not always pretty, but getting it out allows the healing to begin. Are we willing to give people a place to let this out? What would that look like?

I once attended a presentation by a lawyer/mediator who once allowed her client to scream at her as though she were his soon-to-be ex-wife for exactly 1 minute. He got out his anger, and then he was able to go back into the room and continue the mediation. The case settled. Is the hui example a better one? Place everyone in a room and let them go at it? What rules would we impose? How are we willing to ensure that people can speak their mind, speak their story, voice their need to be heard?

I do not normally advocate for screaming matches, but there is a fundamental problem with a system that says X while the parties need Y. We are not comparing apples and oranges; we are comparing apples and outer space. I know there are family law lawyers who will not represent a client who is not seeing a psychologist. I know there are family law lawyers who will listen to their clients espouse their hatred for the other party – at their full hourly fee. But that does not seem to be enough. The courtroom remains a place where people go just to have a stage to tell their story.

What if we gave the parties a safe place to have their story heard? What if we actually provided them 5 or 10 minutes to say what they need to say? What if the system allowed the catharsis to begin? Might we see a different situation in the courtroom? Might we never have to see the courtroom?

A hui has particular rules that must be followed. It is not a place where the parenting plan will be decided. It is not a place where the parties will decide who gets to keep the autographed World Series baseball. It is, however, a place where the issues that make those decisions so difficult can be addressed. Provide a forum for someone to be heard, truly listen, and then move on. Let the pain come out . . . but outside the courtroom. Then, when we tell them that their facts are “irrelevant” they will know we do not mean the fact that they have these emotions is irrelevant, but rather that those were heard in a separate setting, and what matters to the case is about moving forward.

I do not mean to say that this is an absolute fix to a broken system, but it is something to ponder. The first post on this blog asked, what type of system would you create for these families moving apart if you had never heard of the adversarial process in the first place? Would your vision have a place to vent emotions? If so, how would you do it? I am asking because I think, in theory, it is a great idea. In practice, however, I do not know how it could work.  

What do you think? Is there a place in the system to allow the parties to vent? Do you see a better way to do it?

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. Took too long to read this excellent post. Not only do I agree with everything you said, and this is coming from the role of a psychologist, yes, one of those in the family, but also from someone who has said for years that perhaps a very important side function of child custody evaluations is to have a place where litigants / parents can have their voice and be heard. I don't necessarily think people have to use an evaluation for that process, but I do believe that people need an opportunity and a place, with the right structure in place, to get heard.

    On a similar vein, I think the dilemma is two-fold. There are people who vent all the time, and these people need to know how to stop venting, learn to constrict their emotions, and learn to vent in a way that is productive but not just dumping, regardless of where and how it's being dumped. There are other people who need to vent and don't know how or where to do so. With the first group, we need to have less venting and provide alternatives that are useful and with the latter group we need to provide the time, place, and space to vent and then let go.

    That's my .02 worth - What do others think?

  2. Thanks, Phil. I agree completely, and certainly custody evaluations are a better place to vent than in the courtroom. If nothing else, the venting does not happen at each other. Instead it happens to a professional, and one who is hopefully trained to understand the issues. Thanks for the feedback.