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Engaging Emotions in Self and Parties in the Mediation Context


Author:  Katherine Goodman



This qualitative study focuses on the complex and dynamic nature of emotional engagement in the mediation context.  Parties and mediators alike experience strong emotions that can affect a mediation. Yet most current mediation training, while providing substantial attention to management of parties’ emotions, does not focus on mediators’ emotional engagement.  The salient research question thus became: How do experienced mediators deal with emotions during the mediation process, their own and those of the disputants, and how can this inform future mediators?  A phenomenological approach was used to glean the lived experiences of five mediators.  How do they experience their own emotional reactions? What are their triggers and patterns? What strategies do they employ to regulate their emotions?  Methodology included literature review, and gathering data through twelve semi-structured questions posed in a responsive interviewing style during one-hour phone interviews.  Responses were recorded, transcribed and reviewed.  Data then was coded into themes, organized into meaning units, and interpreted through the lenses of current theory.  Data analysis identified key needs – awareness, growth and empathy expression – to reach a goal of increased mediator competence in emotional management.   Intervention strategy was developed to enhance mediator training by addressing those needs; sustainability of this strategy is recommended through steps such as collaborative curriculum formation of the enhanced training module (“ETM”), testing, and moving the module out into the field.  Implementing the ETM would fill a structural hole, strengthen weak ties and weave a critical new network from existing resources.

Keywords: emotional expression, cognitive appraisal, cognitive dissonance, human needs, emotional/social/cultural intelligence, neuroscience and conflict resolution.



Chapter One - Nature of the Conflict

1.1 Background

In the mediation context, the need for emotional management exists on the intrapersonal and interpersonal levels; not only do parties have emotions but so do mediators.  Of the common emotions frequently expressed in mediation sessions – anger, fear, sadness – it is strong anger that often unsettles mediators.  Intense emotions often trigger irrational behavior (Adler, Rosen & Silverstein, 1998).  Mediators have the challenge of developing a capacity to tolerate strong emotional expressions and the unpredictability that accompanies them.  They must manage emotional expression by parties while regulating their own.  David A. Hoffman states, “mediators cannot avoid having an emotional reaction to the parties, but they must avoid letting such reactions create an appearance of partiality” (Bowling and Hoffman, 2003, p. 172).  Donald Saposnek, a family mediator, points out that the parties’ emotions can “trigger emotional responses, countertransference reactions on the part of the mediator” (Bowling and Hoffman, 2003, p. 249). He adds that there is a critical need for mediators to know their own triggers.

At the interpersonal level in the mediation context, expression of emotions, or “felt experiences” (Fisher & Shapiro, 2005), can be an asset or an obstacle and is an important part of the communication process.  Part of a mediator’s job is to manage the intensity of constantly surfacing emotions in such a way as to neither suppress nor indulge them.  Some believe venting must take place in order for the process of reconciling interests to begin (Ury, Brett & Goldberg, 1988).  There are many management techniques on which the mediator can draw to manage strong emotions: active listening/reflective listening, rephrasing and reframing, empathy, setting and maintaining agreed upon ground rules, and calling a caucus.  Knowing when and how to artfully use these techniques requires experience, knowledge, and Emotional/Social Intelligence (ESI) (Goleman, 1995; Goleman, 2006).

Numerous authors in the Conflict Resolution (CR) field confirm that emotions are part of a complex system and central to conflict; emotions are a cause and a result of conflict and can play a key role in the resolution.  Emotions are unavoidable, fluid and triggered by many causes. Conflicts sometimes become fixed in rigid patterns, which are resistant to change (Coleman, 2011).  Emotions are central to these rigid patterns.  They present challenges and opportunities in mediation.  The more deeply we understand emotions, the more nuanced conflict management will be (Fisher & Shapiro, 2005; Goleman, 1995; Lindner, 2006; Bowling & Hoffman, 2003; Ury, Fisher & Patton, 1991).

  Mediation literature frequently notes the difficulties mediators can experience in the management of strong emotions in self and parties.  Lori Schreier’s research article, “Emotional Intelligence and Mediation Training” (2002), looks into the need to enhance mediator training with regard to managing emotions.  After conducting a large survey of mediation trainers, she concludes that “the experience of mediation trainers across a broad spectrum is that most mediation training does not sufficiently teach how to be with, or work with, strong emotions in mediation, and that there is a great need for support in our development of emotional self-awareness and self-regulation” (p. 117).  Schreier finds that, in general, mediator trainers rate emotional management higher in importance than substantive issues.  Most respondents believe that “mediation training does not sufficiently teach how to address the parties’ emotional reactions” (p. 107).  She concludes that basic mediation training should be expanded from 40 to 80 hours to include Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in the training through theory, coaching and self-assessment.  She suggests that we must change ourselves before we can model behaviors that will assist change in others.

Tricia Jones and Andrea Bodtker (2001) discuss five principles basic to emotional conflict integration and, therefore, to mediation: (1) Conflict is emotionally defined; (2) Conflict invokes an ongoing level of emotional intensity; (3) Emotion morally frames conflict; (4) Emotion reflects identity issues that impact conflict; and (5) Emotions impact relational conflict.  Emotions are an important part of how we make sense of our relationships, both in the moment and retrospectively (p. 221-2).  The authors explain that mediators must know how to read nonverbal expressions to manage the emotions of the parties they mediate.  They stress the importance of mediator self-awareness regarding their own nonverbal cues, and recommend videotaping a session to achieve this.

James Duffy (2010) discusses the role of empathy in attending to emotions in the mediation context, but cautions that empathy can compromise neutrality, one of the key principles of mediation.  Duffy makes the point that emotional expression in mediation involves trust of those present and that, more than simply listening and reflecting, mediators need to “attend” to the emotions expressed.  Duffy and others who question the reality of a neutral mediator are highlighting a possible gap between espoused theory and theory in practice (Argyris and Schön, 1974).  Mediators may say they are neutrals and attempt to act impartially, but do mediator emotions find their way into nonverbal communication, affecting the parties’ perceptions of the mediator’s neutrality?  What reality is co-created between co-mediators, between mediators and parties, between parties, and among all four at the table? 

This paper focuses on the challenges mediators experience and the strategies they use to manage their own emotions and those of the parties.  It posits that emotional management is complex and multifaceted, a unique skill that reaches beyond classic mediator techniques to apply factors such as the “presence” a mediator brings into the room.  How is this “presence” described?  Bowling and Hoffman (2003), citing Boulie (1996), describe mediator qualities that contribute to positive mediator “presence” as: “empathic, nonjudgmental, patient, persuasive, optimistic, persistent, trustworthy, intelligent, creative and flexible, and they have a good sense of humor and common sense” (p.18).  They cite another mediator, Lois Gold (1993), who suggests the following characteristics: “Being centered, being connected to one’s governing values and beliefs and highest purpose, making contact with the humanity of the clients and being congruent” (p. 27).  The questions remains of how these critical qualities get formed in the mediator and, by extension, whether and how they can be enhanced in mediators in training. 

In their own practice, Bowling and Hoffman express three stages of “presence” development: (1) studying the techniques; (2) developing a deeper understanding of how and why mediation works; and (3) a growing awareness of a mediator’s knowledge of self and its relevance to the mediator’s job.  This third stage is a blend of self-awareness and is “about being a mediator rather than about doing prescribed steps” (p. 16). In this sense, CR in the mediation context is less about the mediation model and more about the mediator.

In the mediation process, multiple realities are operating, are co-created and are constantly shifting.  Most critical are those of the initiating and the responding parties, but the mediator is also a significant contributor.  In the process of mediation these “realities” are based on a complex group of factors, some of which include: individual histories, personal biases, filters, governing variables, mental maps, core beliefs and values, perceptions, and memory (Fisher-Yoshida, 2003; Pearce, 2004; Festinger, 1957; Kahneman, 2010; Lazarus, 1991; Arrow, Mnookin, Ross, Tversky & Wilson, 1995).

The relatively recent advancements in links between ESI and cognitive neuroscience have opened up a new way to understand and manage emotions, and therefore conflict, and are relevant in the mediation context.  In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman (2006) argues that we are “hardwired to connect,” and because of the neuroplasticity of the social brain, the way we make those connections can sculpt our brains, our cells, and our DNA.

In “Bringing Oxytocin Into the Room” (2009), prominent mediator Ken Cloke suggests that we need to be mindful of the role hormones play at the mediation table.  Parties may arrive pumped full of adrenalin, which triggers “fight and flight” reactions.  Later in the mediation, it may be oxytocin, the hormone that promotes “tend and befriend,” that dominates.  Cloke notes, along with Goleman, that humans are “hardwired” for aggression, but also for empathy and collaboration.  It is useful for mediators to seek methods of reducing adrenalin and increasing oxytocin through trust and collaboration, he suggests.   

The role neuroscience might play in CR has been explored frequently at recent CR conferences.  Advances in brain imaging have opened vast interest in neuroscience as it interfaces with many disciplines, including mediation.  Lindner (2006) defines emotions as “both hardwired and malleable and adaptive to social and cultural influences” (p. 271).  The brain’s neuroplasticity allows it to evolve constantly.  The increased understanding of the brain’s activity and evolution, like other new areas of information, is yet another exciting new gateway to deepening mediator skills through updated training.


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