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Mediating Madness — Proven Stress Reduction Strategies From a Mediator

From the Mediation Matters Blog of Steve Mehta.

Recently, after a very stressful mediation, one of the attorneys came up to me and told me that he didn’t know how I was able to handle all that stress on a daily basis.  He then asked me how I survived.  After answering his question, it got me thinking that although we take it for granted there are a lot of stressors that can affect us during mediation and negotiations. 

In that mediation, the parties were extremely hostile to each other, the case involved the death of a person and a claim for wrongful death and tough liability issues.  There was a lot at stake for both sides and the expenses were mounting daily.  To top it off, there was a lot of pressure to settle the case – each side wanting the best possible deal.

The attorney’s question about how to address such stress was an important one.  In the litigation context, there are often mediations that have many of the same issues.  These mediations can be extremely stressful for the mediator, the attorney and the clients.  Repeated exposure to these kinds of stress conditions can not be good for anyone.  Indeed, studies have clearly shown that repeated exposure to high stress can decrease a person’s health.

Unfortunately, not being exposed to these stressors is probably not an option for a mediator that specializes in highly complex and emotional cases; nor is it generally feasible for attorneys in this arena of litigation.  Needless to say, it becomes increasingly important to find ways to manage the stress factors.  Fortunately for me, I have developed strategies over the years that have helped to manage the daily stress of difficult mediations.



These strategies can be useful for anyone who is in mediation or is facing a difficult negotiation.

First, take a deep breath.  Now take another.  And another.  Yes, breathing deeply is a powerful force and can wash away the worries of most cases.  Try to focus for five minutes on your breathing.  Many times in mediation when the stress is at its highest, it sometimes help to focus on breathing.  The rhythmic nature of breathing can slow down the pace and give you time to think clearly. 

When breathing in front of people, you don’t need to breathe as deeply as you would if you were in private.  But you can still focus on your breath.  Simply take deep silent breaths.  I tried this technique in a room full of people for ten minutes and no one knew that I was conducting deep breathing exercises.

Second, be mindful of your situation. In a recent article, entitled The Raisin and Negotiator, we talked about the fact that simply eating and appreciating a raisin (or something else like chocolate) before a mediation can help to manage the stress and aggressive behavior.  In fact, people who practiced being mindful before experiencing stressful encounters reacted better than people who didn’t practice being mindful.

Third, take a walk if you have to.  If you can, find a way to take a walk in nature.  Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that taking walks in the park enhanced cognitive performance and decreased stress compared to simply taking a walk in an urban environment.  For me that happens to be a highlight of one of my offices.  The office is surrounded by trees, a golf course, and nature.  It is easy to take a short walk and feel connected to nature. 

You might be saying, “I don’t have time to take a 45 minute walk in the middle of a negotiation or mediation.  Well you don’t need 45 minutes, although that might be nice.  5 minutes will do.  You can do what I call, “Power Pleasure Walking.”  You may have heard of power walking, which allows you to walk quickly and burn calories quickly.  Well Power Pleasure Walking allows you to gain the most stress relief out of walking, even in short periods such as five minutes. 

In order to Power Pleasure Walk, you must simply start walking at any pace you deem comfortable.  Look at your pace and the rhythmic nature of your pace.  Now add in breathing to your walk.  Take a deep breathe and then let it out, matching the pace of your walk with one breathe in for every two to four steps, and then one breathe out for the same number of steps. Then after about a minute of doing the walking and breathing at the same time, increase the ratio of breathing to steps to one breathe every four to six steps.  If, however, you don’t like that ratio, do something that feels comfortable to you, just making sure the breath in has the same number of steps as the breath out.  After at least five minutes, you will notice that everything becomes clearer and that it doesn’t seem so bad.  I have even used this technique sometimes in between going from one room to another during mediation. 

But what if it is not convenient to take that five minute walk.  Well studies have shown that simply looking at pictures of nature instead of urban environments can help to decrease stress and make you think clearer – in other words clear your head.  So load up all those pictures of Yosemite, the ocean, and Hawaii on your computer and prepare to unleash those pictures when the stressful moment requires it.

Another technique is to give yourself a timeout. Now that I think about it, I don’t know why as a child I didn’t like timeouts.  Now, I love them.  Five minutes to yourself to do nothing.  How luxurious is that?  If that stressful situation arises and you are about to respond, think about taking that 5 minute time out before you respond.  I know that this technique has saved my marriage countless times.  It has also helped me to avoid saying something that I might not want to during a mediation.

This next technique inadvertently comes from a friend of mine who always changes the topic when a stressful issue comes up in the discussion.  She always seems so comfortable and stress free. So I tried it.  In one case, I was mediating a case and addressing a very difficult and emotional issue relating to the merits of the case. When I was involved in a discussion that was too stressful for the person hearing it, I simply changed the topic.  You could immediately see the tension decrease in the room.  Later, when the tension had subsided, and when the party was ready, I raised the tough issue in another way.

One technique that I use at any time, during any stressful situation, is to simply remind myself (internally) that “it is not about me; it is about them and their worries; they are not targeting it at me.”  For attorneys, you might say something like “I didn’t create this mess; I am just here to help them out of this mess.  I am not the cause, I am the solution.”

One thing that you can do to remind yourself of your own private mantra is to create a signal that only you know and that is inconspicuous.  If you remember in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the characters always tied a string around his finger to remind him to do something.  You could do something similar.  For example, you might put a small amount of pressure on your gums by your teeth biting down on your gum.  Another reminder could be to pinch your toes together in your shoes.  A third option is to tighten your abdominal muscles (this one could have other physical fitness benefits also).  Find your own personal reminder and use it when the going gets tough.

Stress management during crisis is an important life skill that can be used in any stressful situation.  For mediators and attorneys that have to face high stress situations on a daily basis, these skills could very well be life saving.


Steve Mehta

Steven G. Mehta is an attorney and mediator providing unique mediation services in a variety of types of civil litigation. His ability to understand the human process and complex emotional issues involved in legal negotiations enables him to effectively assist the parties in obtaining the best possible results during mediation.… MORE >

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