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Emotional Literacy For Mediators

Tips for Dealing with Emotion in Mediation

You don’t have to be a mediator to know that emotional issues lie at the heart of conflict. As Bernard Mayer points out, “emotions are the energy that fuel conflict,” but they can also be the “key to de-escalating it.”1 The ability to deal skillfully with emotions can be essential to finding lasting resolution. Yet emotions are often overlooked, feared, avoided and misunderstood by mediators, parties and attorneys. As mediators, we need to become adept at recognizing, understanding and addressing emotional issues. We need to become emotionally literate, fluent in the emotional language of conflict.

Conflict arises from unmet human needs, and the emotions that are closely linked to those needs. Emotions are often under the surface, but they are always in play. Much information about the parties’ relationship can be gleaned from astute observation of the emotional context of the conflict. In some cases, what parties want most is the chance to feel heard, and although a written agreement is a central part of most settlements, it may be less important to the parties than the emotional satisfaction of having their needs and feelings understood.

Emotional literacy enables the mediator to assess the parties’ emotional states and find a balanced and constructive way of dealing with them. It challenges her to walk the fine line between emotional expression that is useful on the one hand, and detrimental on the other. Mayer astutely writes: “The art of dealing with conflict often lies in finding the narrow path between useful expression of emotions and destructive polarization.”2 Indeed, it is most likely the fear of destructive polarization that causes mediators to avoid the emotional dimension in the first place.

Not only must mediators walk the “narrow path,” they must do so in a culture that is largely ignorant of, and frequently hostile toward, emotional expression. When a mediator mentions feelings, he may well be met with skepticism (“I didn’t come here for therapy”) or derision (“too touchy-feely”). Attorneys will often squirm in their seats, ask what possible relevance emotions could have to the dispute, and urge that the discussion be refocused elsewhere.

In the face of this, the mediator’s challenge is to become not only emotionally literate, but deft. In a recent survey, mediation trainers rated addressing emotional issues as generally more important than addressing substantive issues in a mediation session. This suggests that failure to adequately address the emotional issues can result in ineffective mediation. Close to half those surveyed, including two thirds of the most experienced mediators thought mediation training does not sufficiently teach mediators how to address the parties’ emotional reactions.3

Emotional Awareness

So how can mediators address the parties’ emotions in an effective way? What often stands in the way of emotional literacy is our own habit of recoiling when faced with strong feelings, both in ourselves and in others. Why do we tend to resist, deny or avoid dealing with feelings? The answer lies in our own relationship with emotion.

Many of us are more comfortable in the realm of the intellect, the black and white world of logic. We find emotions difficult terrain, a foreign and elusive language. As Kenneth Cloke observes, emotions are multi-layered and difficult to label: “Grief and pain are often masked by anger, as fear of loss is masked by denial. This makes it necessary to search beneath the surface of these volatile emotions for deeper truth.”4 Daniel Goleman, in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, says that the foundation of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. He uses this term to mean “an ongoing attention to one’s internal states”, or the ability to monitor one’s feelings from moment to moment.5

Thus, to gain emotional literacy, the mediator must begin to understand her own internal states, and develop greater comfort and skill in this area. A useful starting place in gaining greater awareness is self-assessment. Try answering these questions:

  • Are you aware of what you are feeling moment to moment?
  • What are your beliefs about emotion?
  • Which feelings are okay for you to have and express, and which are not?
  • What is your family history with emotional expression?
  • What cultural and gender-based messages have influenced your emotional expression?

Stone, Patton and Heen, authors of Difficult Conversations, refer to this as the “emotional footprint” and state: “Exploring the contours of your footprint across a variety of relationships can be extremely helpful in raising your awareness of what you are feeling and why.”6

The attitudes and beliefs that make up our unique emotional footprint are formed in early childhood and are deeply ingrained. We need to explore where our forbidden territory lies, and what behaviors and emotions cause us to contract or recoil. Only when we understand the way in which we relate to emotions, and embrace the richness of emotion, can we begin effectively to support others.

Addressing Emotional Issues in Mediation A moment often arises in mediation when the “real issue” emerges on the horizon. Even if it has not been spoken of or acknowledged, the emotional charge is palpable. It’s a question away. Cloke describes this as a “dangerous” moment, a moment in which something fundamental could shift.7 The mediator must decide: whether to avoid or address the deeper issue.

This can be a profound choice, and there is no universal “right” answer. It may be wise to sidestep an emotional issue in one situation, and essential to address it in another. Mediators might ask themselves the following questions:

  • Are you making a conscious decision at that moment, or are you reacting to the emotional charge in an unconscious way?
  • Are you aware of the emotion looming on the horizon, or does it go unnoticed on your radar?
  • Do you avoid addressing the emotion because of personal discomfort?
  • Do you ignore the emotional energy because you are unsure whether or how to address it?
  • Are you willing to allow parties to feel and express emotion when you sense that it would help them move forward?
  • Are you willing to take the risk of moving into uncertain terrain?

Supporting appropriate emotional expression can be one of the keys to helping parties resolve conflict. It can create an opening, a willingness to let go of the conflict. It can open the door for movement and new possibilities. However, the mediator’s comfort level with emotions will often dictate the level of emotional expression that is allowed,8 and thus, may limit or expand opportunities for resolution.

Conflict resolution has been described as requiring an advanced skill set. “In the realm of emotional intelligence, conflict management is a high-level skill that draws upon integrated use of several emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy and social skill.” 9

As mediators, we frequently sit in the middle of intense emotional cross-currents. We must be able to allow the tension of conflict, without needing to suppress it or rush in to fix it. We must have the ability to empathize with strong emotions, such as grief and anger, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, also remain detached and objective. We must develop a tolerance, and better still, an appreciation, for emotional expression. In short, our work requires not only the development of emotional literacy, but ultimately emotional mastery.

End Notes

1 Mayer, Bernard, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution, Jossey-Bass, 2000, p.10-11.

2 Mayer, p.11.

3 Schreier, Lori, Emotional Intelligence and Mediation Training, Conflict Resolution Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2002, p. 107

4 Cloke, Kenneth, Mediating Dangerously, Jossey-Bass, 2001, p. 61.

5 Goleman, Daniel, Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1995, p 43-4.

6 Stone, Douglas, Patton, Bruce and Heen, Sheila, Difficult Conversations, Penguin Books, 999, p.91-92.

7 Cloke, p. 4-5.

8 Schreier, p. 104.

9 Schreier, p. 101.


Eileen Barker

Eileen Barker is a mediator based in San Rafael, CA who specializes in helping parties achieve amicable resolutions in business, employment and family conflicts.  She teaches classes on mediation, conflict resolution and forgiveness and is an Adjunct Professor of Law at UC Berkeley. MORE >

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