Anger and Hostility in Mediation

“In one of our concert grand pianos, 243 taut strings exert a pull of 40,000 pounds on an iron frame. It is proof that out of great tension may come great harmony.”
-Theodore E. Steinway

Let’s face it – parties and attorneys find themselves in mediation because they are in the midst of a fight. Many fights can be ugly, whether it’s a business, family, or consumer dispute. People feel that they’ve been treated unfairly, that they’ve done their best to resolve the conflict, and now it’s time to take the fight to the next level – with attorneys and courts.

For one reason or another, they have found their way to mediation. What a great opportunity! The parties have been told that this is an efficient, less costly, less risky, and completely voluntary way to solve the problem on terms all sides control and can live with. They get to the mediation, and what happens? Tempers flare, insults fly, accusations abound, and before you know it, everyone is on their feet, yelling and pointing fingers!

This debacle can, and should, be avoided. But if it can’t be avoided, it can be controlled. Certainly the mediator has many tools to control the situation, but the parties and attorneys have the power to keep things cool. It might surprise many to know that solid solutions can be achieved despite the near-melee. Here are some techniques to try:

First, parties and lawyers should know in advance if they have a potentially volatile situation/participant on their hands. Most people know themselves well enough to be able to predict what could happen if someone presses their “hot buttons.” The key here is to prepare in advance for the worst-case scenario. That means anticipating your “hot buttons” being pressed, imagining your response, reframing your thoughts about how to respond, and practicing a calmer, constructive response.

Second, think about what will happen if the party or attorney chooses an approach that will press the opponents’ “hot buttons.” Anger and hostility feed on themselves, and when you’re in the middle of it, you just can’t resist firing back. Again, prepare for this possibility. Remind yourself why you’re going to mediation – you will be there to make a deal, not to burn a bridge.

Prepare for your physical response to antagonism and accusations. Think about how you react physically when someone essentially calls you a liar or doesn’t believe you when you are genuinely telling the truth. Whether it requires taking long breaths, closing your eyes, separating yourself from the situation, or any other method, realize that first diffusing your physical response to confrontation will then allow you to step back, think clearly, and calmly listen to the messages from the other side.

Consider how your response can achieve what you want from the mediation. Isn’t it funny to imagine someone yelling at you or trying to exert power or authority over you, with you just sitting there politely listening to what they are saying, and waiting your turn? That’s not what your antagonist is expecting, and that kind of response will be surprisingly disarming.

That leads to a third technique. Consider setting aside the “dressing” over the message, that is, the ranting and raving, the loud accusations, the irrational “explanations,” the outright lies. To do that, you must separate the emotion from the message by actually listening to what your opponent is saying almost as if you were an outsider.

This can be practiced in preparing for the mediation, but also takes considerable concentration and discipline in the moment. However, the information you will get will be invaluable. You will be able to start to see the problem from the other side’s point of view. You will be able to actually repeat your opponent’s concerns back to him or her (instead of focusing on what you want to say). By actually hearing their side of the story, and learning what they think went wrong, you will be able to more effectively convey your own point of view.

That crucial step will put you in the best place to begin real negotiations, brainstorm solutions, and commit to the concept of compromise and acceptance. Exquisite harmony from immense tension – a work of art, like the Steinway concert grand piano.