Find Mediators Near You:

Emotional Intelligence In Mediation

Our greatest freedom is the freedom to choose our attitude.
Victor Frankl

Conflict is more a state of emotional imbalance between parties than it is a resource-centered enigma. A conflict hasn’t begun until there is an emotional response, before that it is merely problem solving. The book Emotional Intelligence (EI) says that while most of us think we have no choice about how we feel, in reality the feelings we attach to any situation are a choice we make. The most important thing to understand about feelings is that they are choices. William James at the turn of the last century said that “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his or her life by altering his or her attitudes of mind,” that literally feeling differently will allow us to think differently about any given situation.

Emotion is what gives life meaning. Without emotion the world is a cold and lonely place. With too much emotion, life is almost unbearable. Emotional intelligence tells us that with any situation that we face, we naturally attach feelings to it. It is the situation and the feelings together that give the event meaning for us. And it is that meaning that drives our actions.

Emotion is what allows us to see the differences in things. Without emotion everything would look the same. There is a story in Emotional Intelligence about a lawyer without feelings. Now you are asking yourself, so what else is new? This lawyer had his amygdala damaged and as a result he lost all emotion. What that meant is that he was not able to make decisions, because he no longer saw the differences between choices. He quickly lost his practice and his wife because everything looked the same.

As Stephen Covey says, “Between stimulus and response is a choice” and that choice is what the situation means to us based on our feelings.


The first duty of love is to listen.
Paul Tillich

Empathy is our connection to others, both their perceptions and feelings. It is how well we understand their point of view and their emotional attachment. In the book Emotional Intelligence, Goleman tells us that this emotional entrainment is the heart of influence (117), that we influence others through our feelings. When our moods align we build rapport (117) and that our physical attunement allows our moods to align. So literally mirroring another’s actions will allow physiological responses (heart rate, breathing) to align and help build rapport. In Social Intelligence, Goleman reports on brain research that concludes that an action by one person causes the same areas of the brain in the observing person to respond. Observation alone can build rapport through brain response.

Emotional Intelligence can give mediators a valuable frame for asking questions like those listed below.

Time – when did you first start feeling this way, what did you feel like before this began, how do you feel now, how would you like to feel about this, how have your feelings changed.

People – how do you feel towards the people in this situation, how would you like to feel toward them, how do you feel about yourself, how do they feel about each other, how would you like to feel about this situation.

Negative Feelings

Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.
Noel Coward

Emotional Intelligence tells us when people are feeling down and out of touch with each other, they have what amounts to a set of bad thoughts that come to mind more readily, and bad thoughts bring on bad feelings (EI, 73). Our decision-making capacity is most directly disrupted through negative thoughts (EI, 84). With negative thoughts we can’t think clearly or creatively. Finally, unresolved issues of negative emotion limits our ability to function together (Skilled Facilitator, 195).

Time can be our biggest enemy or our greatest ally when we are in a bad mood. During states of high agitation it takes us 15 to 30 minutes just for the chemicals in our body to dissipate (EI). We all know when a child is agitated we might ask them to sit quietly and the same applies to adults. Taking a break to calm down can be the best medicine and lead to agreements where none appeared possible.

Positive Feelings

The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen, nor touched … but are felt in the heart. Helen Keller

Emotional intelligence tells us that thoughts in the mind are associated by content and mood (EI, 73). We give meaning to any situation by the feelings we attach to it. However, as we saw earlier, those feelings are choices. So we need to help the parties reflect on how they feel about a difficult situation and see if they can decide to feel better about it.

I do an exercise with my classes where I give them a situation and ask them to write an “I” statement. An “I” statement says I feel _______ when _________ because ________ therefore I would like to ask _______. In the first statement they describe how angry they feel and how the other person should change. After they write the first statement I ask them to deliberately decide to feel better about the situation and write a second statement. The better feeling in the second statement always leads them to a better outcome.

We also know that good moods enhance the ability to think flexibly and with more complexity (EI, 85). If we decide to feel better, we will be able to think and act better. People in good moods are more expansive and positive in their thinking. (EI, 85).

Finally, humor has been described as a surprise in the brain when two or more previously unconnected concepts are linked. This linkage literally triggers a laughing, joyful response. A sense of humor is integral to finding a creative solution (EI, 85) and when people start to laugh, you have more ideas than you know what to do with.

There are 2 practical ways to handle emotional situations. First, use time to your advantage. When emotions start to run high, take a 15 to 30 minute break and ask the parties to reflect on what they want out of mediation. The break will allow the chemicals in their body to dissipate and they will return in a much better state of mind. One exception to this is when you are working with constituencies. Parties representing third parties will maintain an artificial and inflated emotional state to protect those they represent. In these cases it is important that they are allowed access to the “membership” to help them take a real stance

The second way is to ask fact based questions. How any times have you seen parties completely distraught and when you asked them a fact based question (when did this happen? How much did it cost?) the emotion immediately dissipates. You have to be careful that you don’t do this prematurely, otherwise there will be concerns left unsaid that may return later.

In conclusion, mediation is more about an emotional resolution than it is about material re-distribution. Helping the parties feel better will help them work together better. Being aware of these simple concepts around EI can assist in more complete solutions.


Trip Barthel

TRIP BARTHEL is the Founder and Executive Director of the Neighborhood Mediation Center in Reno, Nevada. Trip practices and teaches mediation and conflict resolution through the National Judicial< College, University of Nevada, Reno, and Truckee Meadows Community College. Trip has worked in Russia, China and India during the last 3… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Want to Persaude Your Opponent? Tell Her a Story

Want to convince the other side that your case has merit?  Don't argue the law.  Tell a Story! From The Secrets of Storytelling:  Why We Love a Good Yarn in...

By Victoria Pynchon

Bernard Mayer: Staying With Conflict

From John Folk-Williams's blog Cross Collaborate Some Rights Reserved by Nicholas_T In his latest book, Bernard Mayer has challenged our thinking about mediation by singling out a dimension of conflict...

By John Folk-Williams

Peer Resource Extraordinaire: An Interview with Rey Carr

Rey Carr, Chief Executive Officer of Peer Resources, whose mission is to provide high quality training, superior educational resources, and practical consultation to persons who wish to establish or strengthen...

By Gini Nelson