Tips for Dealing with Emotion in Mediation
by Eileen Barker
- Begin thinking about the emotional climate of a case early on, preferably during the pre-mediation phase. Sometimes it will be apparent. If not, inquire of the parties and/or attorneys.
- When dealing with emotionally charged situations, safety and trust are critical. Give thought (in advance if possible) to what the parties and lawyers may need to establish a sense of safety and trust.
- When appropriate, encourage direct emotional expression. ("In my experience talking about the feelings underlying the conflict can be very helpful.") Give the parties permission to "go there."
- When emotions surface in mediation, normalize them.
("Its normal to feel grief in this situation").
- Learn to recognize emotional blocks when they arise in mediation, and how to facilitate constructive emotional expression. The parties will usually flag emotional issues for you, but they will often do so indirectly.
- Distinguish between feelings and behavior. Inappropriate behavior can be addressed through ground rules, and should not be confused with responsible expression of strong emotion.
- Stay with the heat. Allow each person to have his feelings straight out, without stifling or interfering with them. (Even an offer of support can be distracting.) When an opening presents itself, put your active listening and empathy skills in gear. Reflect back the emotional content and intensity.
- Promote emotional literacy amongst parties and attorneys. Explain that acknowledging feelings can be a very important step in conflict resolution (and no, it is not therapy).
- Give the parties options. "Are you comfortable discussing this in the joint session? Would you prefer to talk privately?"
- Give the attorneys options. "It would be helpful for me to talk with your client about her underlying feelings. Are you okay with that? Would you prefer to take a break while I speak with her?"
- Be aware of your own internal response to strong emotions. Are you contracting or resisting? Are you judging? If so, can you set that aside and support the party?
- Learn to embrace healthy emotional expression. Recognize that emotions tend to connect people in a very human way, and often hold the key to unlocking conflict at a profound level.
Eileen Barker © 2003, all rights reserved.