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New Ways to Work with Emotional Parties

We’ve all seen exasperating behavior in mediation. Furious parties who don’t listen, won’t cooperate, and seem determined to make problems for themselves. Indignation, fear or outrage swamp their better judgment.

But perhaps these parties aren’t trying to drive us insane. Perhaps they’re experiencing a brain malfunction.

Flooding is an adrenaline overload that was first identified by the family researcher, Dr. John Gottman. During flooding, an adrenaline surge disrupts parts of the brain. Symptoms include:

  • The inability to take in information. You know this feeling: “When he gets like this, it’s like talking to a wall.” But this person may not be ignoring you. During flooding, the part of the brain that takes in new information isn’t working well. He may not be able to register what you’ve just said.
  • Rigid, unrealistic choices: Flooding people lose the ability to find options. This means trouble with problem solving. It isn’t that they can’t ever find better choices; it’s that they can’t do it while flooding.  
  • 0-60 escalation. Flooding is a learned behavior. So if this party flooded the last ten times she saw her husband, she will flood the next time she sees him, even when he’s said nothing and done nothing more than walk into the room.
  • An inability to explain themselves: The story starts here, goes there, loops back to something that happened in the Reagan administration, and peters out without ever coming to a point. After a while, you don’t even want to know what happened, you just want them to stop. 


Flooding will interfere with most of the skills you need in mediation: listening, problem-solving, cooperation, you name it. And worse, as your own frustration builds, you can find yourself flooding, too. That means you experience a sharp drop in your ability to listen or find new options. Not exactly what a mediator needs.

What to do?

            Flooding is not the sign of someone crazy, stupid, or deliberately obstructive. It’s a natural consequence to being upset. But rather than just trying to reason with this person (which you may have noticed, doesn’t necessarily work), there are different ways to get through to the brain and get these parties functional again.

            My approach is called the Virtual Tranquilizer®, and it tackles flooding directly. For an example, here’s a “how to” clip from my new DVD from the American Bar Association, Working with Emotional Clients: The Virtual Tranquilizer® for Lawyers.  Mediators have a different program, of course, but both professions at times have to get information from parties who are so upset they make no sense. You can see it here.  

            In short, many of the problems we face in mediation are caused by a brain malfunction. It’s not character, it’s chemical. And we can help these parties get past that malfunction and come back to their better selves.

If you would like to learn more about Virtual Tranquilizer® skills for mediators, please visit our website, where we’ll have a special discount for members.


Andra Medea

Andra Medea is the author of the award-winning book, Conflict Unraveled: Fixing problems at work and in families.  She developed her unique approach while teaching at Northwestern University and later at the University of Chicago. She started Medea & Associates in 1987. MORE >

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