In one mediation session, Lucas starts banging his head against the window. In a different scenario with another mediator, Julia starts sobbing while Lucy screams obscenities. In yet another, Joseph pounds his fist on the table. A mediator observes Barbara jabbing her index finger at her opponent’s nose. Michael shouts accusations at the man he once considered his best friend. During a tense moment, Peter’s face turns bright red and he bites his bottom lip until it bleeds.
If you’ve been mediating for a while, chances are you’ve experienced similar outbursts as those described above at some point in your career.
Something triggered the threat response in the brains of these individuals. Sometimes you can see the tension and emotion build in response to what is happening in the room. In that case you can often calm and channel those feelings into a productive place.
Sometimes the behavior appears in an instant, as if from nowhere, and catches you off guard.
Extreme instantaneous outbursts are nicknamed the “amygdala hijack” for the part of the brain’s limbic system that gets aroused when a person fears he or she may be in actual or perceived danger. Blood rushes to legs and arms in preparation to flee or fight and the stress chemicals adrenaline and cortisol are released.
When this happens, people literally cannot think, let alone participate, in mutual problem solving with a person with whom they are having a dispute. Later they might say, “I felt like I lost control of myself.” In fact, they did lose their ability to reason which is why such behavior often appears unreasonable and over the top.
You can see how quickly such a situation could escalate if left unattended. In conflict situations, one outburst can trigger a counter response faster than a ping pong ball bounces across the table. You’ll want to catch that “ball” while it’s in the air if you can before it hits the paddle on the other side. In other words, do something to stop the escalation. But what?
Obviously, reasoning with the person won’t work since they are incapable of thinking clearly in that moment. Neither will allowing venting of emotions in the hope they will run their course. Emotional catharsis is a myth. Rather than calming the waters, ruminating on and talking about negative feelings churns them up.
Psychologist Brad Bushman who has done extensive research on anger says, “Venting keeps arousal levels high and keeps aggressive thoughts and angry feelings alive… like using gasoline to put out a fire.”
That’s because both positive and negative emotions are a combination of physiological responses in brain chemistry combined with the meaning people give them. Venting keeps stress chemicals surging through the body and reinforces the meaning (and associated justification) for the negative emotions.
Once someone is in the grip of their emotions, it will take time—twenty to thirty minutes--for this person to return to a state of calm and ability to make progress on the issue at hand. As a mediator, you can help initiate this process to help the parties get back on track toward problem solving. Just don’t try to rush it because the body needs time for those stress chemicals to recede.
The first order of business is to calm down the situation. According to neuroscience research on emotional regulation, four strategies seem to help individuals manage their emotional responses.
1. Disengage from the external stimuli that triggered the negative emotions (whatever was said or done just prior to the emotional outburst).
Using this strategy might include calling a break, moving into caucuses or postponing the mediation until another day. For example, in Lucas’s case where he is banging his head on the window, you might clear the room and then stay with Lucas to help him calm down.
2. Use distraction or change the focus of attention away from the external stimuli.
When someone has been hijacked by their amygdala, this is often a good first intervention. You can use physical or mental distractions.
For example, ask everyone to take several slow, deep breaths. Invite everyone to stand up and stretch or push (not pound) against the wall. Have them march in place while pumping their arms up and down. Moving large muscles brings blood back into the brain, oxygenating it. Remember, blood rushed to the extremities during the outburst. You may want to explain the science behind asking people to suddenly do exercise. It’s another good form of focused distraction.
Mental distractions usually involve giving the person something else to think about. Ask them to talk about their children. Give everyone a puzzle to solve (I like visual puzzles like the vase and face). Have them talk about upcoming vacation plans. Again, you might acknowledge what you’re doing—a distraction in itself that takes the focus off the stressor, “I’m going to give us all a mental break for a few minutes,” you might say. “Let’s solve this puzzle (or talk about vacation or whatever you decide) and afterwards, we’ll take another run at addressing the issue.
3. Modify an aspect of the external stimuli that triggered negative emotions.
Here you might focus on stopping troublesome behavior such as shouting, cursing, table pounding, finger jabbing and so on. For example, you might say, “I can see how important this part of the issue is to you (whatever is under discussion) but we can’t make progress unless you stop doing (name the behavior getting in the way). Instead, can you tell me more about what is important to you?”
Note how this strategy calls for showing empathy but not dwelling on the emotion. Instead, the focus is on the behavior and then a shift toward a way of talking about the issue without venting but also without focusing on problem solving or solution finding.
4. Re-interpret the meaning of the external stimuli.
You can offer several alternate ways that the triggering stimuli could be interpreted. You might ask the other party about their intention (assuming you already know it was a positive or at least neutral one). The idea is to help the person think about the event or people involved differently—usually in a kinder light—to regain a sense of control and security. Just don’t expect the people in the grip of their emotions to be able to do this on their own right away. Prime the pump for them. You may need to use one of the earlier strategies first before trying this one.
Sudden emotional outbursts can catch the most experienced mediator off guard. Pay attention to your own response in that moment and engage in whatever form of calming and self-care techniques work for you. You’ll need to stay on your toes to bring the situation under control and continue to make progress on solving the issues under discussion.
Memorize the above strategies. Think of past examples and practice (perhaps with colleagues) what you might say or do now using one of these strategies. Keep your best ideas in your back pocket ready to pull out when you need one most.
By Jagoda Perich-Anderson