Understanding the role of emotion in a mediation

Mediations can be highly emotional for all parties involved, but especially so for claimants.  For them, it’s often the only chance they will have to be heard, to say their piece and to finally put a matter to rest.  They are likely to be stressed, fatigued from the drawn-out litigation process, confused, upset, hurt and angry.  Similarly, respondents’ emotions can also be strong when stakes are high, reputations are at risk, funds are limited and facts and circumstances are in dispute. 

No matter which side you’re on, understanding and learning to manage your client’s unpredictable, fluctuating emotions is a really important skill to master for a mediation to be successful.

Understanding the emotions

To engage effectively in a mediation, we need to understand the psychology and neuroscience of conflict.  This means understanding what promotes or inhibits a person’s ability to shift their perspective of the dispute and then be in a position to compromise it.   

For claimants, the dispute is usually very personal and strong emotions can easily cloud a claimant’s ability to listen and understand reasonable and logical arguments.  It’s often the emotional element of conflict that can turn a mere difference of opinion into an intense and unnecessary dispute.  This emotional response has a name – an “amygdala hijack”.  

The amygdala is a cluster of cells near the base of the brain which help to define and regulate emotions and is also responsible for activating a person’s “fight or flight” response. The amygdala is key to how we process strong emotions like fear or stress.  An “amygdala hijack” occurs when strong emotions virtually take over the thinking part of your brain making it difficult, or sometimes even impossible, to think rationally.  It’s essentially an intense emotional reaction that is out of proportion to the circumstance.

It’s therefore really important during a mediation to understand and be mindful of the neuroscience behind conflict and to learn how to minimise and manage an amygdala hijack so that rational discussions can take place.

So what are some of the common things that can trigger the amygdala hijack?

Common threats

There is no doubt that mediations, almost by definition, are confrontational.  If not handled sensitively and correctly, there are some common circumstances in which parties may feel threatened and are therefore at risk of an amygdala hijack; for example when the parties:

  • are unsure and uncertain about the process or the end result;
  • feel disrespected, not valued or insignificant;
  • feel their concept of self worth or self esteem is damaged;
  • do not believe they are heard and understood;
  • perceive they lack control or power over the outcome.

More often than not, these threats are things that can be contained and managed by you.  By understanding these triggers and spending the time to put strategies in place before and during a mediation, the amygdala hijack can often be avoided.  If you are able to keep your client calm, in control of their emotions and rational, a mediation is far more likely to be successful.  

In my next blog, I will outline 7 strategies to overcome these common emotional threats.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the skills and approach that I bring to a mediation, please contact me on 0412 048 456 or by email on jsomerville@r3resolutions.com.au.