She was beautiful, her beauty oddly enhanced
by my fear of her. She was clearly a match for the
shadowy, powerful realms of pain and the specter of
death that always accompanies birth. Perhaps if I had
been one of her patients when we met, I would have
felt safe in her competent hands, and her fierceness
would have been employed as my ally. Instead, I was
the professional and she the client, and she seemed
to regard me as her sworn enemy.
I had been called in as a last resort and against
Nancy’s will. The conflict had so severely damaged
relationships in the office that the entire staff ques-
tioned whether the practice could survive if things
weren’t resolved. Had it been a labor, there would
have been talk of choosing between saving the baby
or the mother. The office manager pleaded with me
on the phone to come. “I don’t know what else to
do,” she said. “It’s really, really bad. Some of us are
really scared—it’s like a civil war. Patient care is being
affected. I don’t know what else to try. Could you at
least come out and see what you think?”
I went in cautious but optimistic, as I always do. But
after talking with each person involved, it was clear
that everything that could be wrong was wrong.
I knew in my gut that the “baby,” so to speak, was
dying. While the most professional and appropriate
thing would have been to tell them I could do nothing,
I clung to the fact that it was not yet dead.
That was my first mistake. I said yes to working with
the group, despite all the indications that it was too
late. Secretly, I wanted to be a miracle worker, a hero.
After all, I became a mediator because I wanted to
help people. Who hasn’t fantasized about succeeding
against all odds? And who, with the painful acumen of
hindsight, hasn’t regretted such a delusion?
My second mistake was that I grossly underesti-
mated the challenges involved. This was not just an
office conflict. It also involved problems between the
clinic and the local hospital, which itself was collaps-
ing and, as it turned out, would soon close. But most
difficult was the custody conflict between Nancy and
the clinic’s head physician, Karen. Karen and Nancy
had been in a committed relationship for years, rais-
ing Nancy’s two children together. Nancy had broken
up with Karen in the past year because she had
met and fallen in love with a man, to whom she was
now engaged. She had denied Karen access to the
two children ever since her engagement. Karen was
heartbroken and told me she’d do almost anything to
see the childrenbut she wanted to keep her personal
and professional problems separate. Meanwhile,
Nancy made it clear from the first interview that she
was willing to take down the practice rather than let
Karen have access to the children. I watched in hor-
rified awe as she cut a swath through her family,
seemingly unconcerned about the damage her rage
inflicted on her children or her co-workers.
When we first met, Nancy sat with her arms across
her chest and her eyes hard. I did my usual trust-building intro. She was unmoved. “What if you don’t
like me? Or what if I don’t like you? What does that
do to your process?” she demanded, staring at me.
It occurs to me now that this could have been a
veiled threat, although I took it as a question that
came from her own fear, and treated it as such. I told
her that mediation was a process of cooperation
rather than coercion, that it was about increasing
communication and overcoming misunderstandings.
I told her that if she ever felt I was less than fair, or if
she didn’t trust me, she should let me know, because
without sufficient trust, the process would not work. I
told her I was there to listen and to facilitate an agreement, not to impose one—that the process came
from the group and what they needed and wanted.
Thus empowered, Nancy set impossible terms:
refusing to speak directly with Karen or ever be in
the same room with her, declaring off-limits any
discussion by anyone about the situation with their
children, and insisting on her freedom to participate,
or not, in the mediation process, despite the fact
that she was central to it. I, against my better judgment, agreed to them all. That was my third mistake.
While she spoke openly about her powerful intuition,
I ignored my own. While she edited none of her feel-
About the Author
received her MA
in Conflict Resolution in 1995 from
She is trained in
special ed, and
multi-party mediation and Appreciative Inquiry. She has
been a member of
ACR since 2011.
Nancy was the head midwife in a women’s health clinic that was
erupting in chaos, and she was the center of the firestorm. She was
everything I tried not to be. She highlighted what I kept in the dark,
darkened what I tried to illuminate. She wielded emotion like a bludgeon
one minute, a blanket the next. She was unafraid to terrify people or to
bask in their admiration.