Strategies for working with emotions in mediation

I’ve recently been exploring different ways that mediators can work with emotions in conflict. It’s surprising how many different things mediators do!

Here’s a compilation of strategies I found that mediators reported using.

Which ones they used seems to depend very much on the model of mediation, the personal style and preferences of the mediator, and the context in which the mediation took place.

Photo Christina Wocin, Unsplash

Pre-mediation strategies

Mediators often meet with parties before a mediation. During these intake or pre-mediation sessions, some mediators will specifically address emotions that might arise during the mediation. Strategies may include:

  • Building an emotional connection with parties to promote trust and openness in mediation.
  • Explicitly explaining to parties that emotions are normal in conflict and during mediation.
  • Asking questions of parties about their emotional experience of the conflict, and whether they have any concerns about their emotions (or those of other parties) in the mediation.
  • Explaining to parties what the mediator will do if someone expresses strong emotions.
  • Asking the parties what they would like the mediator to do if they (or another person) becomes very emotional during the mediation.
  • Setting ground rules for managing (and sometimes excluding) emotions in the mediation.
  • Seeking advice from a psychologist or counsellor about the party’s emotional readiness to participate in a mediation.
  • Ensuring that a party has emotional support during the mediation (e.g. having a support person present or available by phone).
  • Coaching parties to help them identify, regulate and express their emotions in a constructive way in the mediation.
Photo by Tim Gouw, Unsplash

Strategies during the mediation

During the mediation, mediators may use a range of techniques to work with emotions. Some mediators will use techniques that minimise the expression of emotion during the process. Others will actively encourage identification and expression of emotions as part of the process. Strategies may include:

  • Ignoring emotions.
  • Priming the emotional climate for mediation with the mediator’s opening statement.
  • Encouraging discussion of emotions.
  • Discouraging discussion of emotions.
  • Allowing people to ‘vent’ emotions (in joint session and/or private sessions).
  • Asking questions to elicit parties’ emotions.
  • Acknowledging parties’ emotions (verbally and/or non-verbally)
  • Summarising or reframing parties’ emotions (e.g. to remove toxicity or to support clearer expression).
  • Mirroring back expressions of emotion (using the same words and tone as the party).
  • Externalising emotions and exploring their role in the conflict narrative.
  • Having tissues available / handing tissue to party who may need it when emotional.
  • Taking breaks when a party becomes emotional.
  • Using private sessions to work with parties separately when emotions arise.
  • Refocusing parties on the goal of the mediation.
  • Confronting avoidance of emotion.
  • Encouraging emotional perspective taking.
  • Work with the core concerns underlying the emotions rather than the emotions themselves.
  • Modifying the structure of the mediation to support emotional regulation and expression.
  • Having specific emotional support people (e.g. psychologist or counsellor) on hand to provide assistance in case of emotional emergency.
Photo Getty Images

Strategies to support parties’ observing other’s emotional expression

I couldn’t find very much explicit advice about what a mediator could do to support someone who was observing another’s emotional expression. For example, when a party is crying what should the mediator do to support the person who is not crying; or when a party is very angry, what should the mediator do to support the person who is the target of that anger.

Generally, the advice seemed to be move to separate sessions and try to spend equal time with each party, irrespective of whether they were the person expressing strong emotion or the person observing it / to whom it was directed.

  1. Can you think of other strategies that a mediator might use to work with a party’s emotions during conflict? 
  2. What strategies do you typically use and why?
Working with Emotions in Conflict Course image

In our online course Working With Emotions in Conflict, we have a module on emotions in different conflict resolution process (including lessons negotiation, coaching, mediation, multi-party facilitation and restorative justice processes). In the mediation lesson we expand on the ideas I’ve introduced in this article, including discussing timing of various interventions, and the potential risks and benefits of each. For more information about the course, click here.

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