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How Might We Work With STRONGLY FELT EMOTIONS That Surface During Mediation?

As is to be expected, people in the midst of relationship transition are experiencing a deep range of emotions that include varying levels of personal distress. For some these are manageable when mediation commences, but they may become inflamed by something that is said or felt during the process. For others anger or hurt is always evident as an 'elephant in the room'. Given sufficient provocation and intensity these dynamics can surface and threaten to derail the mediation.

This is particularly true when participants engage in persistent back and forth accusations and recrimination during the sessions. We encounter this with many families to greater or lesser extents, and we hear of it as back stories that erupt as arguments that the parties later report. This is all quite natural - family law cases are underpinned by powerful feelings about any number of subjects, each containing sharp hooks where people can find themselves caught and polarized in an instant.

Similarly, when strong emotions are used to justify and link to self-serving concepts of 'fairness entitlements' or to purely 'legal rights', threads that might lead to potential mutual interests and joint benefit win-win situations seem to fray or become knotted. Parties may begin to lose hope.

The impulse can be to end mediation, believing that Family Court is now the only way to end the dance. This may or may not be true for your matter. Mediation does require that both parties be willing to work together at pivotal junctures, and one party alone cannot do all the heavy lifting. But we hope that you not resort to litigation just because passions repeatedly challenge you (and the mediator) - after all, this tension may have been one reason you decided to mediate in the first place and is not news. Years working with families within the adversary system have demonstrated for us that people suffer immensely by adopting that course. Moreover, we have found that stubborn patience pays dividends and that cases that seemed impossible have ended well. When confronted during mediation by the other person's deep anger or you own, we urge you to stay the course.

By looking at what underlies intense negative feelings we all can be helped to better understand how resentment ripens into judgments that interrupt or render impossible the openness required for crafting workable resolutions. It is possible to "out" these judgments in ways that help to diminish the otherwise co-optive power they can assume over wise and sensitive decision-making.

We acknowledge that this can be a daunting task. The idea of investigating the reasons why we feel and what (pain?) we feel can be really frightening. It can sound like a replay of what is bringing the relationship to an end, of which you've had enough. It could also become another place to swirl and twist, and so it requires that the subject be approached with earnestness and integrity. For this is the rub: If parties to mediation remain fixed within an overriding anger, or the hurt that underwrites it, they are not likely to move on with their lives (or to achieve a settlement) in any satisfactory or healthy way. Each party's willingness to investigate what is transpiring a little more deeply may be a key that unlocks the door to an improved level of freedom for both. Together we can try to work through to it.

Partly because of these recognitions, DFMS mediators Thurman Arnold and Retired Judge Gretchen Taylor spent the past six days training with a small and passionate group of professional mediators under the supervision of Gary F. Friedman, Jack Himmelstein, and Norman Fischer. These gentlemen comprise the "The Center for Understanding in Conflict & The Center for Mediation in Law", based in Mill Valley and New York City. Gary is a peacemaking trainer, lawyer, and mediator based in Northern California. Jack is a conflict theorist and former law professor at the Columbia University Law School and lives in New York. Norman is an author and former Zen abbot who teaches mindfulness practices. This group is developing useful techniques for becoming unstuck when strong emotions threaten to overwhelm the parties' mediation.

Of particular focus was the high conflict divorce, and how it challenges mediators too. The parties' emotions can strike chords within us, and so our goal in undertaking this training is to better connect in an authentic way with our mediation participants and their experiences, and ourselves. We aim to improve our skillfulness in moving parties forward to successful outcomes even when cases become quite bitter, and found the workshop offered useful tools for helping maintain focus and for investigating how feelings can become destructive to the process. The parties' options and choices can be expanded and redirected in positive ways if we can sit and be present with what is distracting us.

Emotions need not be directly addressed in every mediation. Very strong negative feelings are rarely fatal to the endeavor. But if either party's experience includes dynamics that cause blockages to resolving their dispute, if permitted to do so mediators can guide the participants to better recognize what is occurring inside and between them, and so keep the process on track.

If this topic applies to your relationship transition, the three of us might benefit by openly discussing and exploring it early on.

Thurman W. Arnold, CFLS
DFMS Mediator Serving Riverside County, California


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