Who could imagine heightened emotions go together with conflict? Mediators, attorneys, and other legal practitioners get the closest look at this pairing during most of their work. Surprisingly, the topic is often only given a cursory treatment during training; with some assumption that practitioners must acquire coping strategies through experiential processes in the field. One reason for this is how people view learning how to handle emotions, in general.

As a species, humans experience a wide range of emotions, starting from birth and biological processes through the lifelong development cycle which influence how emotions manifest in stages. Any parent can express frustration about the “terrible twos” or the “hormonally-challenged teenage” experience. The reality links to how human biology influences emotions, how they get processed, and how they get expressed outwardly. Before exploring the context of emotions in mediation, a short explanation about neurology and the human brain is essential to show how any conflict professional should treat emotions, first in themselves, and then relating them to clients.

Research has shown that the human brain creates neural pathways since the period after conception till the end of life. The best adage for this descriptive is the “use it or lose it” concept that most people are familiar with, but applying this to the mediation context requires some deeper concepts. The brain has layers of memory, starting with short-term and moving to long-term capabilities. Short-term memory is a clearing house that discards most non-essential data, and the brain refines and enhances this capability in humans as they approach adulthood. What gets moved to the long-term memory is completely individualized, with one huge exception, traumatic experiences.

The stark intrusion of any perceived traumatic experience links rapidly to long-term memory. For starters, this genetic trait that took millions of years in the making is essential to safety. Beyond that, remembering, retelling, or reframing traumatic experiences forces a rewiring of neural pathways constantly and reinforces the memory. The brain is intuitive, so it adds or subtracts details with each iteration, moving the memory into what researchers call false memories. Reframing memories, and adding or removing details is the brain’s way of compartmentalizing trauma and locking it behind barriers. The process is described as a very crude explanation but sets the tone for how clients enter mediation with a variety of strong emotions about the conflict they are seeking to work through.

The emotions include anger, frustration, fear, grief, humiliation, and fatigue on one side of the continuum, to elation, gratification, hope, relief, and appreciation on the other side as they enter mediation. Many people ask me why they experience positive emotions, and this is the simpler side of the emotion paradigm. People constantly seek peace and harmony. As mediation is engaged, many participants feel this is the first time they may be heard and supported, which allows positive emotions to manifest internally. But, what about those pesky negative emotions?

First, without emotions and their role in how humans process experiences, the participants would not have entered the conflict. Some experts think that repressing emotional energy moves people toward resolution. If one looks deeper, they quickly realize that the power of internalized emotions is a foundational construct, and is driving the conflict. With that in mind, the mediator’s competency range must include how to traverse the emotional minefield in play, a context which changes from mediation to mediation, and may even evolve within the same mediation as parties themselves evolve.

The primary task of the mediator is to create an environment where trust emerges throughout the room. Allowing the open but controlled expression of participant emotion during an open session allows the parties to experience both sides of the conflict at a very personal level. Being heard and feeling supported is the primary positive emotional outcome most parties cite in exit questionnaires as the reason they were willing to move toward resolution. The movement does not occur without trust. Effective reframing builds on trust and allows the parties to experience the conflict in a new light.

The key is proper mediator management of expressing empathy and support for all parties. The support process starts when the mediator acknowledges and normalizes emotion. Achieving a balance between feeling marginalized at the beginning of the process and feeling validated is a learned skill developed through role-playing during initial training, and evolves into an art form over time. When properly done, a mediator often creates the bridge to settlement as a calm demeanor overtakes the room.

The calm demeanor emerges as an artifact of the neural pathway context because the parties have created a new telling that starts rewiring their memory, adding the other side’s perspective. In most cases, this is great. Occasionally, outliers occur bi-directionally, such as when one party anchors on a single point and uses it to reinforce their anger or frustration, or when a party chooses to totally repress emotions through avoidance choices. Mediators must guard against letting combustible behavior hijack a session, or let feelings of being overwhelmed cause harm in any way.

Suggesting a break or moving into caucus to allow decompression or experiencing new emotions allows the atmosphere in the room to re-enter a calm state in most cases. Allowing strong venting has the opposite effect, and often derails mediation. Why? Both action potentials may emerge from that pesky neural pathway problem. Strong venting reinforces the negative experience while decompressing or allowing new emotions to emerge allows a participant to rewrite the story, with the genetic trait of seeking safety in control.

Dealing with emotions is an evolving competency. Every mediation allows a mediator to expand their ability to see, feel, exhibit empathy, and live in the moment with the parties. So, what about mediator’s emotions? Aren’t they influential in the overall schema?

Being “neutral” does not mean having zero biases or zero emotions. The debate over this topic is constant. The best perspective states, “Have patience with yourself first, and embrace your emotions and biases as normal. Lacking this competency means you really should not become a mediator. Embracing your emotions and biases allows you to compartmentalize them, set them aside by choice, and enter the “neutral” role in a calm state of mind. Great amount of focus should be given to the processes. As the mediation progresses, it locks an experienced mediator into a heightened state where training and experience help control the mediator’s emotions. Also, this state of being brings calmness to the parties, and is essential part of maintaining an atmosphere of trust.”


Credit: Dr. Buddy Thornton