Our Greater Purpose
by Kathy King
You are the mediator in a small claims case. Although the case is about money, you learn that the parties have been living together and have recently broken up. You pick up on hostility and a variety of unresolved feelings even though the parties are not belittling each other. Their strong emotions are obvious and powerful.
You, the mediator, have an interesting choice to make. You can either:
1. Ignore the emotional component entirely;
2. Tell them to put aside all personal feelings and focus solely on the issue that is before the court; or
3. Acknowledge and show respect for the emotions involved because of the nature of their relationship. Wait a beat, and move forward with the mediation.
In my eleven plus years of mentoring mediators I have seen mediators select each of these options. The path taken by the mediator can have a major impact on the mediation. So what would you do if you were the mediator for this case? Which direction would you take, and why?
I would like to address each of these options and the possible implication for each course of action seperately.
Option 1 Ignore the emotional component entirely: When the mediator leaves strong emotions of the parties unacknowledged those emotions are more likely to escalate throughout the mediation. Unacknowledged emotions always have power. If you ignore my anger, I feel angrier. If you ignore my hurt, I feel more hurt. It can also impacts each of the parties ability to think and make decisions. When emotions are in the way it is difficult to be forward thinking.
Option 2 Telling the parties to put aside all personal feelings and focus solely on the issue before the court: Telling people to put personal feelings aside might keep the parties from becoming more emotional. After all, you have basically told them they needed to check their emotions at the door. By not acknowledging emotions we tell the party that we don't really want to fully understand.
Pushing emotions aside also limits the potential for building empathy between the parties. The more fully each party can understands the other, the more potential there is for greater compassion and cooperation.
Option 3 Acknowledge and show respect for the emotions involved: Acknowledging and respecting the emotions that come with every situation validates each person’s right to feel what they feel. When feelings are acknowledged they lose some of the negative energy that accompanies the emotion. Not only will it allow the parties to be more present at the table, it also allows the participants the possibility of working through feelings and toward closure.
So how does this ackowledgement of feelings look in mediation? The discussion will sound something like this: “I can hear and see that dealing with this issue today is difficult for you both. I can appreciate that it’s more difficult because of the nature of your past relationship. Hopefully, by jointly making decisions today in mediation, you can continue to move forward.” Pause, then continue with mediation. When said in a thoughtful way, these simple phrases can bring healing.
Another way of acknowledging the emotion is to address it with a person individually. The mediator's response might sound something like this: "Sounds like when the relationship ended your communication basically broke down, and that has caused a lot of frustration for you. Is that accurate?" As always, each individual in mediation is our teacher. They teach us about their thoughts and feelings. By checking our understanding with the party, they are allowed the opportunity confirm or reject the label we placed on their emotion.
Mediation is not meant to “fix” every emotional hurt. We are not attempting to counsel people to better ways of feeling or behaving. What we can do is acknowledge their right to have feelings. The simple act of acknowledging is incredibly powerful. It can be the catalyst to not only move mediation forward, but to move people forward too. This, to me, is the real power of mediation that cannot be achieved by a court. It is our greater purpose.
Have any comments or questions? Feel free to share your thoughts below.