I have been a mediator for 40 years, and before that I was a family lawyer. In all those years, there is one statement I have heard in every divorce: “I just want what’s fair.”

Wanting fairness is automatic, instinctive, it seems to be part of our humanity. We all want to know we have been treated fairly. What we mean is we don’t want someone playing favorites. We want the decisions to be consistent with standards or rules. And, if a judge, mediator or other person is involved, we want them to be impartial, fair-minded and unbiased.

When people are in conflict—such as in a divorce—each one expects the other to be “fair.” Each person thinks that she or he is being reasonable, decent and open-minded.” And, each thinks the other person is stubborn, closed-minded and unreasonable. That’s where the problem lies.

Because when we say the decisions were fair, it always means I got what I wanted. Even if that means the other person is disappointed or feels unfairly treated. We think the other person is just upset because what they wanted wasn’t fair. On the other hand, what I wanted was fair.

One of the difficult things in talking about fairness is that it has different meanings for each of us. For some, fairness means equality—50/50. For others, fairness means that the outcome makes sense, it fits their situation, and it’s workable. Fairness might also mean there was an open and honest discussion and there was an opportunity to present ideas and proposals, that they were listened to and given respect—no matter what the outcome might be. Still, for others fairness means they were able to make decisions for themselves without outside influence or coercion.

There are many more ways to think about fairness.

1. Fairness usually means we are satisfied with the results. Fairness can also mean that the results met our expectations. Or, that the outcome is similar to what others have experienced. It might even mean the outcome is consistent with “the law” as we understand it. In other words, when we talk about feeling satisfied with the outcome, we mean that the end results made sense, they were reasonable and they were consistent with how others have been treated.

2. There are times when we use the word fairness to mean we are satisfied with the method or system by which the results were determined. Whether in informal discussions, at a mediation session or through a trial, we feel a sense of satisfaction when everyone was treated the same, each person had the time and opportunity to tell their story, present their proposals and respond to the other person’s ideas, and when the mediator or judge was impartial and unbiased.

3. We might also feel treated fairly when we participated actively in every element of the decision-making. Satisfaction comes from feeling fully engaged and able to be part of the discussion, to present ideas, ask questions, be listened to and given a full opportunity to join in making decisions that affect us and our children. We experience satisfaction when feel composed, confident and hopeful.

This will be a 4-part post. I will talk about each of the three elements of satisfaction in more detail and with examples to illustrate when people feel a sense of satisfaction (fairness) or when it’s missing. The next section deals with fairness in terms of outcome, the results.

Photo by Brendan Church, www.unsplash.com