My colleague and friend Renee Reynolds and I presented a seminar during the Virginia Mediation Network (VMN) conference at the University of Richmond School of law over the past weekend. Our presentation focused on managing emotions in mediation. We discussed the importance of (1) understanding grief, anger, fear, and loss in mediation, (2) how to recognize and decode emotion, (3) why a mediator should address emotions, (4) how to validate emotions, and (5) steps mediators can take to move past impasse when emotional issues seem to be a factor. Issues and emotions must be addressed in mediation.
As family and divorce mediators, our clients often come to see us feeling a wide range of emotions including disappointment, helplessness, grief, anger, outrage, sadness, and betrayal. Many emotions are about unresolved issues of the heart, and many conflicts are about relationships. Emotions influence all of our decisions -- what concessions a person will make during negotiations, when a person will make concessions, whether he or she will continue to negotiate or settle, how he or she will push the other party, how the other person will react when pushed. People in conflict have a full range of emotions that vary in intensity during mediation, and over time, parties become less able to communicate, more polarized, and less able to resolve their conflict.
In our session, we talked about the publication "Grief, Anger, and Fear in Mediation" written by lawyers and mediators Joe and Susan Epstein. The article discusses how mediators can help untie the knot of emotion and stated in pertinent part:
"...Being attuned to the presence and addressing the key emotions of grief, anger, and fear as they arise in the context of mediation...is more often than not the key to successful mediations. Commentators in the field of mediation often address the motivations, underlying interests, and needs of the parties involved in conflict. Skillful mediators search for and address these factors during the course of mediation. Nonetheless, commentators, mediators, and negotiators tend to overlook the emotionally powerful issues of grief, anger, and fear. Acknowledgement of emotional factors empowers parties, creates a legitimate sense of control and fairness, and creates the opportunity to restore, preserve, or enhance relationships. In short, by addressing emotions, mediators and negotiators will unlock the door to key motivations, interests, and needs facing parties..."
As mediators, we help resolve conflict by identifying common goals, engaging the parties in cooperation, and focusing on the substance of the dispute. We also use tools to address issues and emotions in mediation such as paraphrasing, reframing, validating, summarizing, and asking open ended questions. In particular, we validate by (1) noticing the presence of emotion, (2) being present and giving all of our attention to the person who is speaking, and (3) acknowledging and naming the emotion. Too often, attorneys and negotiators are uncomfortable with addressing emotion in a mediation room and choose to simply ignore it.
It was an honor to present this subject at the conference, and it was great to talk to, exchange ideas with, and learn from attorneys and mediators from all over the state of Virginia. We are looking forward to the next VMN event!
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.