How to Handle Strong Emotions

Mediators face strong emotions all the time. We can view these emotions as the most challenging part of the job or see them as a window into the conflict. Neuroscience can help us cope with the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities.

We have discussed the inherent problems in venting during mediation in a prior post and explained why venting is risky and can be detrimental to the mediation process. Despite our best efforts to avoid or minimize venting, strong emotions are sure to occur in many mediations. What can we do?

Mediator strategies to reduce strong emotion

  • The simplest method is to ignore the emotion and try to refocus an emotional party onto another topic. Sometimes this is successful; however, if the emotion is overwhelming, the party will not be able to refocus until you deal with the emotion itself.
  • Mediation training courses suggest acknowledging emotion to let the party feel heard. The typical mediator response is something like, “Sounds like you feel betrayed (or angry, or devasted).” This can be effective, especially if the party goes on to talk in more detail about how they are feeling.
  • Neuroscience studies have looked at the brain to see the response in the amygdala when different strategies are tried to reduce anger. The findings show that although acknowledging emotion can be effective in lowering amygdala activity, the strongest response occurs when subjects name their own emotion. Instead of acknowledging and naming the emotion, it is more effective to encourage a party to state their own emotion. A mediator can say, “Help me understand how you are feeling right now.”

Using emotion to discover emotional needs

After mediators reduce the intensity of the emotion, they can go on to use the emotion as a clue to underlying emotional needs. This can be done in a three-step process:

1. Find the reasons for the strong emotions by asking for more information about why a party feels the strong emotion, “Tell me more about why you feel betrayed (or angry or devastated).”

2. Ask the party to articulate their emotional need, “What do you need to address these feelings?”

3. Explore options that can address the emotional need, “What specific actions could the other party take to help you address that need?”

The goal is to create a variety of potential solutions that address emotional along with economic and security needs.

-Jill Tanz

2 thoughts on “How to Handle Strong Emotions

  1. This is one of the most difficult thing to handle in mediation. At least for me as a mediator. Because you feel you don´t know how to keep you cold and help party or parties to manage their emotions. And how let them express how they feel but controlling in the same time they don´t go “out of the box”.
    These are, as always, very useful tips to use in joint session.
    Thank you!

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