How do you handle emotional outbursts as a mediator?

Emotional outburst isn’t an unusual occurrence during mediation. Due to the conflicting interests of the parties, there is a very high tendency of either or both of them being quite emotional about the subject matter. Therefore feeling overly sensitive and threatened are not alien emotions.

Sometimes the outburst could be mild or extreme depending on the sensitivity of the situation. It would be an added advantage for you as a mediator to have the background knowledge of the emotional state of the situation you are mediating as this would help you be better prepared to manage the atmosphere while mediating.

You need to understand that emotional outburst from clients isn’t directed at you no matter how personal it gets. Humans tend to attack or transfer aggressions to an innocent person when they feel threatened by another. It is a direct reflection of the state of mind of the clients and the sensitivity of the case. So, a mediator should be emotionally intelligent. The mediator should refrain from being judgemental; your personal responses to strong emotions should be checked and put aside for the benefit of both parties.

Also, a mediator should pay attention to the emotional atmosphere of the case and sensitise both parties on the advantage or benefit of expressing the underlying emotions behind the case. Beyond the anger, annoyance and coldness, the clients want the case resolved amicably. That’s why they have hired a mediator after all. Let them understand the benefit of constructive emotional expression and how it would help their case.

Emotional outburst sometimes occurs because either of the party feels threatened by the other party. So the threatened party tends to become aggressive or defensive and takes an attacking stance. Realising the vulnerability behind the outbursts would help the mediator recognise the best approach to subliming the charged atmosphere. The mediator should allow both parties to vent and release their emotions.

Encourage each party to express themselves, to bring down the barriers and address the very core of the matter. This allows both parties to connect on an emotional level. Baring the underlying emotions on a case often times goes a long way in getting the conflicts settled as each party recognises the turmoil of the other party and realises they are not the only one feeling vulnerable and threatened.

In the case of a very extreme outburst, like screaming and ranting, the mediator needs to know that the party is incapable of rational thoughts at that moment. For instance in the case of Amygdala Hijack; which refers to a state in which the emotional part of the brain responds out of proportion to a perceived threat before the rational parts, leading to irrational behaviour or action which one may later regret.

The client in this situation loses control of any rational thought and cannot listen to the voice of reason. The mediator needs to allow the party to exhaust himself or herself then calm down. Most times amygdala hijack occurs out of stress or anxiety. Allowing the person to vent helps them calm down. The mediator needs to show a good degree of empathy as this relaxes and further calms the party down.

Note that having suppressed emotions on any case hinders its resolution, therefore it is important for the mediator to emphasise the benefits of constructive emotional expressions and learn to facilitate them. The feelings of both parties shouldn’t be downplayed at any time because that is the foundation on which the resolution would be built.

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