The practitioner’s emotions in conflict

Along with the people involved in conflict, the practitioners supporting them also experience emotions before, during and after any interactions. The practitioners’ emotions may have an impact (positive or negative) on the clients, and the reverse is also true – the clients’ emotions may have an impact (positive or negative) on the practitioner.

Why is it important that conflict practitioners are aware of, and can regulate, their own emotions?

  • Our work exposes us to others’ emotions and those emotions can impact on our own emotions (affecting both our professional practice and personal wellbeing).
  • How we experience, regulate and express our own emotions impacts on ourselves (professionally and personally) and our clients.

The complexity of client / practitioner emotional interactions

The infographic below shows the many ways that practitioners’ and clients’ emotions interact. Keep in mind that this diagram shows only one practitioner and one client, but many practitioners work in more complex environments with more people involved, and so these interactions may be multiplied many times.

Here’s a brief explanation of what the diagram shows. 

The emotions each person brings to the interaction

Firstly, each person comes to the interaction with their own emotional profile, based on their own personality and past experiences. They will also come to each interaction with incidental emotions or moods and some historic emotions relating to the others involved based on their past interactions. They will also experience constantly changing present emotions relating to the subject matter, other people involved, and the interactions themselves. Finally, they will experience meta-emotions based on their own appraisal of the emotions they experience.

The impact of emotional regulation efforts

As each person interacts, they will engage in some level of emotional self-regulation (perhaps minimal, perhaps very strong). Some emotions they will up-regulate, some they will down-regulate, some they will try to maintain, others they will try to keep out of the interaction. Some of these self-regulation efforts will be more successful than others, depending on a range of factors (we discuss these in the module on emotion regulation in the Working With Emotions in Conflict course). Some of these regulation efforts will be private and not noticed by the other person or people involved, but sometimes emotions and regulation attempts will be expressed or displayed to others (either intentionally or unintentionally). 

Influencing each other’s emotions

The people involved will also affect each other’s emotions in three main ways: 

  • Firstly, by direct interpersonal emotion regulation (where each person deliberately makes an effort to influence, in some way, the other’s emotions);
  • Secondly, by emotional contagion (where each person’s emotions automatically and unconsciously affect the other’s); and
  • Thirdly, by each other’s appraisal of emotional displays by the other.

This cycle continues over and over and is not linear. Remember that people may experience multiple emotions at the same time, or in quick succession, so various iterations of this cycle may be in progress at any given time in an interaction. 

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.

Here are some questions for reflection, and if you are willing to share your answers, please post them in the comments!

  • What situations can you recall in which you were aware of your own emotions having an impact on your clients, or vice-versa?
  • Was this intentional or unintentional?
  • How did this affect the client?
  • How did this affect you?
  • What strategies do you use to regulate your emotions during the work that you do with people in conflict?

Want to know more?

In our online course Working With Emotions in Conflict, we have a module on the practitioner’s emotions. It covers topics including the impact of the practitioner’s emotions on conflict resolution processes, practitioner emotional well-being and self-care, compassion fatigue, practitioner emotional agility, using the practitioner’s emotions as an intervention, practitioner emotional regulation, and practitioner emotions and empathy.

Find out more about the course here.

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