When dealing with people in disputes, emotions often run high.  Our emotional responses to any given situation are determined by who we are as people, our beliefs and values, and significantly, our early life experiences.

Many years ago I read a little psychology whilst studying techniques for helping people with challenging behaviour.  Consequently, I soon realised that a person’s emotional intelligence and development, does not always keep up with their physical or psychological development.  A person’s emotional development can, if you like, become stuck in a moment of time, sometimes because of a traumatic experience, other times because of conditioning.

For example, a young woman I have counselled suffered from serious anger issues.  She rarely lasted more than six months in any employment placement because her anger and unacceptable behaviour led to dismissals or heated disputes/walkouts.  She is bright, witty and a hard worker.  Yet her anger (fuelled by childhood hurts pertaining to rejection and failure) created havoc when she felt challenged.  When sensing criticism—even constructive criticism—her defence mechanisms quickly deployed and she reacted with tough emotions and words; thus, her emotional ability to cope, even with a legitimate instruction by her line manager, was impacted by a deep seated fear of rejection or failure, stemming from childhood.  Within the context of the fight or flight model, she certainly fought!

Another example is that of an older male worker who actively seeks to avoid confrontation at all costs.  His upbringing was privileged, everything was done for him.  He never wanted for anything and has endeavoured to continue through life accordingly.  The problem is that his emotional ability to deal with challenges, negotiating, and dealing with people never developed; thus, as an adult he still can’t, and either expects to be carried, or gets walked over by colleagues.

In family mediation I have seen the forty something man, married, with kids and a successful career, whose temper leads him to beat his wife.  He is physically and psychologically a grown man, and doing well.  Inside however, he is still a boy—angry with his mother.  His poor wife simply reaps the consequences of unmet hurts inflicted on her husband as a teenager by a mother who mocked him.  He is thus emotionally still a teenager, inside a man’s body.

The issue of emotional intelligence impacting the dispute resolution process is something we all face.  The evidence of this problem can be seen where parties in dispute sometimes adopt different styles of communication.  One might speak (emotionally) as an adult, whilst the other responds (emotionally) as a child.  Such mismatched communication styles present headaches for ADR professionals; and recognising the emotional aptitude of each party is important when trying to level the playing field and to ensure legitimate needs are met.

When considering this process of transactional analysis, ask yourself the following question: “Are they communicating as parents, adults or children?”  A child-child transaction will achieve little as tantrums, demands or weakness will dominate.  A parent-parent transaction will likely become heated and unproductive as they “talk down” to each other in a condescending manner.  Therefore it is the job of the ADR professional to try to manage both parties and encourage them to communicate as adults, for a constructive outcome to materialise.

To test this theory, try using the wrong style with someone you know (and trust) and observe the result–but do explain why afterwards!

by Howard Stern

Operating primarily in the UK and Europe, Howard works exclusively in conflict and dispute resolution. His work follows a 25 year career in project management, training and development. Howard is a member of the British Civil Mediation Council, accredited by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution as a mediator, and affiliated with various NGOs. His love of travel and the great outdoors has taken him to many places, sometimes in pursuit of his wider professional interests in international politics, and to explore the global pressures facing society as it copes with rapid population growth.