Keeping the Home Intact Through Mediation and Therapy. Member Spotlight: Sandra Hitchcock

Sandra Hitchcock is from South Africa and is a family mediator and relationship therapist and in this article she sheds light on her experience mediating conflicts for over 20 years. Sandra began her early career in social work. Through this practice Sandra found that institutions tended to practice counseling from a systemic perspective of families and the world, which was not a view she readily accepted. Deciding to understand more the intricacies of therapy, she went on to pursue a Masters in Clinical Psychology from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Adding skills to her toolbox

Sandra explains she “stumbled upon mediation”. As she reads widely, she began becoming interested in the field. “I always thought if you want to progress in your career, you need to add things to your specialization”, she says; and thus, Sandra went on to pursue a postgraduate degree in Dispute Settlement and Mediation at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, later becoming an accredited mediator from FAMAC Family Mediation Training. Sandra explains that prior to her mediation education, she had no idea how to negotiate, lacking the necessary tools. “Although my focus was family therapy, this brought a new wave of knowledge to me where I could understand all the aspects which affect the family system”. As family relationships, finances, and shared experiences are all intertwined within the family system, Sandra gained insight into the necessity of mediation. She now owns her own mediation practice called Hitchcock Mediation.

As a therapist Sandra explains that she is using an approach based on past experiences linking it to the present using emotions and empathy, while in mediation she is actively listening while remaining neutral. Although therapy and mediation are different in their approaches, Sandra says “it is only a different hat I put on, the morals remain the same”. The practice of neutrality and confidentiality bridges both roles.

Diagnostic tools in therapy

While in lockdown, Sandra began taking the time to begin writing a workboard. She uses this strategy with relationship therapy, where the couple acquires a worksheet every week until they have talked through all elements of the relationship. In sessions, Sandra uses a diagnostic tool whereby the couple imagines what the situation would look like if they were to take a certain route. For example, if a couple claims they want a divorce, Sandra will demonstrate how this will translate over using reality testing. In doing this, the couple may see that there are other suitable options. 

Sandra often uses Narrative Therapy in her family therapy sessions, where the individual explains their story and through this recount of their story, they deconstruct the narrative. “You come to new ways of understanding your own history”, Sandra illustrates. Her sessions typically begin with information over the process and then taking the time to hear them and understand the family’s moral code. “I must understand what happened to know how it will unfold and how to aid them in this process”, she explains. Although many therapy sessions involve high conflict cases, Sandra discloses that she would “rather take a little longer and have more time in between sessions to come to a place where the people can develop new stories. It is important to go slow in order to go fast”. She also teaches individuals that their trauma and reaction to the trauma is normal, creating a sense of unity amongst others.

Active Listening as a tool in mediation

As one gets more experience in mediation, they develop more tools such as peaceful dialogue and active listening. While referring to a book titled Family Mediation by Lisa Parkinson, Sandra explains how she has begun adopting the documented ecosystemic model. This model helps mediators in both listening to and understanding the beginning of conflict in order to resolve the present and prepare for the future. She also notes that it is vital to understand the family and participant’s goals for the meditation sessions. A mediator must not only listen to the individuals, but also deal with their own biases before dealing with others. Sandra has taken time in locating and comprehending her belief systems, acknowledging these so that they do not infiltrate her sessions in order to remain neutral.

Finding the medium to move forward

In both mediation and therapy Sandra believes, “that there’s nothing you can’t talk about”. As a mediator, defining success can sometimes be difficult. Much of the work happens between sessions. It may seem the parties are unwilling to cooperate, and then the next time they enter the office they are two completely different individuals. It is most important to build a level of trust with the parties, giving them access to a safe place to solve their issues through this medium. Though difficult cases arise when there is high conflict and the parties are entrenched in their positions, Sandra explains it is like driving a car, “you have to stroke and shift and find the exact point where it will move forward”.   

Sandra found MBBI after seeing it online. She felt it was a good idea to be involved as it had the international component to the organization in which she wishes to bring to South Africa. “I think the more people are connected around mediation the more peace we can bring and help people not to fight!” she smiles.

Article by Emily Shultis, MBBI Writer