Mediation training has long viewed venting anger as a useful tool for restoring a positive psychological state. This practice has been handed down as received wisdom through several generations of mediation trainers, practitioners, and theorists. Beware, this venting myth can be dangerous
Venting negative emotions triggers the physiologic stress response by increasing the level of the powerful hormone, cortisol. Higher cortisol levels lead to distortions in how we perceive anger, thus making decision-making much more difficult and making parties more entrenched in their original positions. Moreover, recent psychological research demonstrates that venting actually increases aggression and does not reduce anger or “clear the air.”
How to minimize the risk of venting:
- Start the mediation with brief caucuses before joint session. This will let you gauge the emotional level of each party and give parties an opportunity to immediately voice their concerns. You can take steps to reduce high emotions before they boil over in joint session.
- Focus on the emotions present at the time of the mediation rather than asking about emotional responses in the past.
- Ask parties to tell their stories from a third party perspective, almost as if they are watching a movie unfold.
- Minimize the impact of discussing emotions by framing questions as, “Why do you think you reacted so strongly?”
- Don’t encourage parties to relive negative events that started a conflict or ask parties to share how they felt when the other party made them angry.
Venting can be useful in some circumstances if it reveals new information or gives parties a sense of procedural justice. Many disputes have emotional components that underlie the monetary demands. New information revealed during venting can uncover emotional needs and be used to develop non-monetary options for settlement.
Venting can also give parties a sense of procedural justice when it allows a party to feel they have had a voice in the process. Venting, along with active listening and acknowledgement by the mediator, is part of the process that results in this positive reaction.
— Jill Tanz