Families are nature’s security system. Throughout the animal kingdom, we can see the family’s role in survival and well-being. Consider the penguin. In a sea of penguins, the monogamous birds will find their mates even though they are all seemingly identical. In their unforgiving climate, baby penguins stand on their parents’ webbed feet until they are old enough to avoid freezing on the ice. Dogs instinctively travel in packs. From the alpha male down to the pups, each member’s safety depends on the group staying together. The meerkat of Africa is remarkably dependent on family and community. Adult meerkats actually babysit each other’s young to protect them from danger while the parents are out hunting.
Human beings tend to rely on their families even after leaving the nest. A family is often home base in a world of uncertainties, challenges and pitfalls; we know we have a safe place to go when these challenges rear their heads. Albeit to differing degrees, our families are there to protect and support us.
Hard times for humans are often magnified when there is no family to turn to for comfort. When Dan, a systems analyst, was fired after many years at a high tech company, he did not have any family from which to draw strength and reassurance. He couldn’t look to his family for security when he was asked to box up his desk and leave the company facility due to a reduction in the workforce. Tragically, Dan had been abandoned as a child and grew up an orphan. He lived in foster homes throughout his formative years and never even shared a Thanksgiving or other family tradition with friends and relatives.
As a way of creating a family for himself, Dan had thrown himself into his job, where his fellow co-workers had become his family. This gave him confidence, security and a sense of belonging that he had never experienced while growing up. When the company gave him his pink slip, that all slipped away, and the feelings of abandonment and rejection he knew as a child overcame him again.
Dan’s lawyers brought a healthy wrongful termination suit against the company, claiming that he was fired not due to a reduction in force, but for retaliatory reasons. As is typical in these matters, the suit was vigorously litigated until the parties were at the mediation table.
Before the mediation began, the mediator had an opportunity to talk with each party privately. During the discussion with Dan and his lawyers, it became apparent to the mediator that Dan was reliving the abandonment he had suffered as a child. The deep anguish Dan was experiencing from being fired now suddenly made sense. Concurrently, the mediator learned that the employer was planning a very extensive presentation, including a powerpoint summary of the case presented by a large accounting firm, along with aggressive legal support by the employer’s litigation team. In other words, the employer and team were planning to put on their trial hats to open the mediation. This, in all likelihood, would have caused Dan to deepen his sense of abandonment and rejection to the point where he would have been unable to participate in the mediation.
Attempting to dodge this bullet, the mediator encouraged the employer not to make a presentation in front of Dan or his lawyers, but to give an abbreviated summary of their case directly to the mediator in private. At the same time, he encouraged Dan to speak more about his relationship with his employer and why he felt things had gone wrong to the point where he was terminated.
Throughout the course of the session, Dan had an opportunity to work through his sense of rejection and, indeed, at one point met privately with his employer and explained how his workplace had become his substitute family throughout the years. This caught his employer off-guard. Fortunately, the employer had a heart and was willing to listen and understand the incredible dynamics that prompted the lawsuit and brought on Dan’s intense anger. Based on that understanding, the parties were able to begin the process of crafting a solution. The resulting agreement contained both monetary compensation and the promise of an ongoing relationship, including a consulting agreement.
While Dan never had a Thanksgiving as a child, the solution achieved at the mediation allowed him to give thanks for being able to put his life back on track and look to the future instead of the past.