Mediation Techniques for Managing Emotions

By Chuck Doran and Daniele Natali Goldberg

If there’s one thing mediators can rely on, it’s parties getting emotional during conflict. One of a mediator’s most important skills is the ability to set up a process to manage the inevitable emotions that the parties express, including anger, frustration, and fear. Managing the parties’ emotions does not mean minimizing or dismissing them as problems to overcome: there’s value in embracing them as part of the process and outcome, working to harness the constructive power of emotions to help the parties reach closure.

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With the help of some mediation techniques, you can facilitate these situations and capitalize on strong emotions in ways that can benefit all parties involved. Following are a few mediation techniques for managing emotions during mediation:

1. Cultivate an environment of safety and trust

Mediators are responsible for creating an environment in which parties feel safe and comfortable. We start by being sensitive to decisions like seating arrangements (do you invite parties to sit across from each other, face-to-face, or side-by-side?). We also cultivate this environment on a deeper level by explicitly expressing our commitment to keeping what’s discussed in the mediation confidential and to maintaining our neutrality. We also encourage agency in mediation by inviting the parties to speak up if they have concerns that we aren’t fulfilling our commitment to being neutral.

Creating an environment focused on parties’ needs encourages them to express their emotions in a more constructive way. By encouraging them to speak freely and confidentially in front of a neutral party, parties can let their guard down and express emotions more freely. This not only helps parties better understand their own emotions and needs, but it also helps them to better understand one another’s interests.

2. Take a deep breath and sit back

One reason that people are uncomfortable with managing emotions is our cultural bias towards the “rational” and against the “emotional.” However, this simplification about the way we think and express ourselves falls short when measured against our complex human experience. In reality, rational and emotional thoughts and decision making are linked. Eyal Winter, the author of Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think, notes research which shows that moderate anger can sharpen our decision-making skills. Through years of research, he found that “there is logic in emotion and often emotion in logic.”

Mediating a conflict involving angry or upset parties can be difficult, and letting it unfold can also help them to resolve their conflict more effectively. In the moments in which parties begin to yell at each other or express their anger, before you stop the tension from taking form, take a moment to see where it might go. Take a deep breath and sit back in your chair. Allow the table and its contents to grow. You might be surprised how cathartic it is for everyone.

3. If it becomes destructive, return to the process

You’ve set up the mediation to create a safe and comfortable environment for parties, and you’ve sat back and listened, even as they express themselves emotionally. Likely, you’ve learned more about their perspectives and interests. However, at some point, the parties might get frustrated and start repeating themselves, calling each other names, or screaming. When this happens, there are several process options you can utilize to help them manage emotions.

First, ask the parties how the conversation is going for them. This will not only allow the parties to regain control of the conversation, but it also gives them the responsibility and agency to decide whether the conversation is productive for them. You can also summarize what you’ve heard and seen so far to deescalate the tension, and you can name the source of their disagreement. You could say something like, “Obviously, you both care very much about this topic, and right now, you disagree about how to resolve it.” Expressing powerful emotions does not necessarily equal engaging in poor behavior, and your summary can validate what they are feeling while also returning them to the matter at hand. Finally, you can choose to take a break, giving each side a chance to cool down, and move into private sessions with each party.

4. Bring parties back into the present moment

Parties in conflict are often stuck in the past. There is some pleasure gained by blaming someone else for all of the wrongs that have been done to them. Often, parties will go back and forth throwing verbal punches at each other with a repeating trope of the past. A mediation technique for managing emotion in this situation is to be transparent and remind the parties of their ultimate goal: resolution. Pull the parties back into the present moment and ask them, “What can help you, right now? In this moment, and going forward? How can you change your situation today?” Expressing high emotion has great potential power. Even expressions of anger can be productive. But if the conversation shifts from productive to unproductive, bring parties back to the present moment by asking them about their underlying needs and wants in this moment and what they can do to shape their future.

5. Recognize emotion as opportunity

Strong emotions show that people are invested: they care about the issue before them. This could be a key to your movement forward. If a party expresses an emotion to you, stay with them. Listen, reflect, and express empathy. If you sense that a party is unable to express themselves but is seeking a way to do so, there are ways to help them open up. Research demonstrates that mediators can elicit emotional communication from parties in a few ways. Parties’ ensuing emotional expression can be used for the benefit of the process. Some of these techniques and specific examples follow:

  • Grant legitimacy to their emotions: “I hear you are upset. This sounds like a really difficult situation.”
  • Encourage emotion identification: “How are you feeling right now?”
  • Confront the avoidance of emotion. “I notice that you get very upset when you talk about this topic. Could you share why that is?”
  • Paraphrase emotion: “So when that happened, you felt taken advantage of and very angry.”
  • Encourage emotional perspective-taking: “It sounds like this conflict has impacted both of you deeply and has been difficult for everyone involved.”

Emotional expression is an opportunity. When helping the parties express and manage emotions in mediation, recognize that opportunity and make it part of your journey through conflict with the parties.

To learn more about the benefits of building your mediation skills, contact Chuck Doran at cdoran@mwi.org or 617-895-4026.

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