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For a long time now, I’ve been wondering about some disconnect, or lack of congruence, in an area that is a major source of pride for the ADR field (particularly for mediation): Dealing with emotions.

We pride ourselves, as a field, on identifying parties core emotions, dealing with parties’ real concerns, and tapping into their underlying motivations. In teaching and training we teach future practitioners to address emotions, rather than to fear them as disruptive; to see them as a key area to engage parties in, as opposed to something to be brushed under the carpet.

However, it seems to me that we might not be fully preparing – and priming – these practitioners to elicit and deal with emotions that make up the true Dark Side of human experience. By these, I’m referring to emotions and emotional states that are often out of control, un-nameable and seemingly unmanageable. I also include emotions that parties will often not raise or name themselves, and might even try to hide – as they are seen illegitimate, unsuitable for the civilized working-out-of-things the mediation setting seems to call for these are. They might not even be admitting to themselves that they are experiencing these emotions.

Mediators, and their teachers, certainly discuss anger, worry, concern, frustration (the name-able, manageable emotions that might be dubbed ‘light’ emotions, colored with negativity though they are), and so on. However, do we teach practitioners to identify, and cope with rage? With jealousy? With desire for vengeance? With spite? I’m not sure.

Moving from teaching to practice, I’ve noticed two dynamics related to this omission, or resulting from it, in mediation sessions: First, as mediators listen for emotional content, we call off the hunt when we identify emotions that fall into the ‘lighter’ category. Figuring ‘We’ve  got it!”, we certainly often don’t ask questions designed to elicit the darker emotions. Second, even when parties bring emotions from the Dark Side into the room, we might have a tendency to transform them, through words, into lighter emotions. No matter how much we stress the importance of recognizing the level of parties’ emotions, we still tend to tamp them down – if not through ‘constructive’ (read: ‘selective’) rewording as we paraphrase or summarize what parties have told us, then through reframing. I think that instead of reframing emotions, we often ‘down-frame’ them, significantly. We don’t eliminate the emotion, but we bring it down to something we can work with: Rage turns into anger, anger into frustration. Frustration is a favorite destination of mediators; we can deal with frustration – especially as it points towards something that needs to be satisfied and therefore ties neatly into problem-solving.

I have some questions, thoughts and stories related to particular Dark Side dynamics and emotions, but first – your own thoughts. Is this just me? Or are we missing something?

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Emotions from the dark side. How very interesting. An aspect that I don't think was mentioned yet is the cultural (and other) background of the person experiencing and/or displaying emotions. Every now and then I notice surprised reactions from my American friends when I vent in a way and about emotions that seem perfectly fine to me (but not to them). I have the impression that maybe culturally I live closer to the dark side.. Ha! I often even hear comments how the German language sounds so "angry"...

But as regards "dealing" with intense negative emotions that's just a tough call. The other day I read how our brains are wired to respond empathetically stronger to negative emotions than to positive ones and how this can so easily result in people bringing each other down, and how there is a risk that venting can stimulate negative thinking and feeling. I notice that with me. Some situations in my past just make me really angry. Sometimes I choose to not continue talking - or even thinking - about something because I know it will be bad news.

So I think those dark side feelings need to be very carefully handled. We often don't know another person well enough to know if and how far we could/should go exploring their emotions. What if we explore something that the disputant or we cannot understand or handle? I think something must be said for norms that might have come about exactly for that reason: to protect from letting go too much. I don't think it's healthy to hold meaningful emotional responses back (Peter A. Levine, the author of "Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma - The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences" finds that such not-processing can result in trauma), but maybe when things are getting too dark we need an expert and should defer further exploring to a therapist or a psychologist?


I really enjoyed this post and exploration into something that might be missing in mediation.  In my limited familiarity with mediation, I have felt that when re-framing occurs, sometimes real "dark" emotions are subverted, misplaced, or misinterpreted.  If the ultimate goal is to mediate an agreement between the two parties in which they feel like the terms are equitable and fair, then perhaps we have done our part.  However, if we have failed as mediators to address these underlying "dark" emotions-namely: jealousy, rage, vengeance, and spite-then perhaps we have not truly mediated the situation between the two participants.

If these emotions are getting overlooked, ignored, or subverted then may the "issue" between the two parties continue to go unresolved?  The dispute between the two participants may for a day appear to be resolved, but will the ignorance of these "dark" emotions manifest itself in the dissolution of the agreement at a later time?

I believe the answer to all these questions are yes and require those mediating a disagreement to explore these emotions no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable the environment may become.

Also, I believe when someone is talking and it becomes clear that emotions of jealousy and rage are manifested by a party, it would seem axiomatic to deal with these issues in a constructive way that truly settles these emotions, not by sublimation, but rather through exploration.  I don't know about you, but I don't feel like an issue has been resolved if I have simply been ignored or not listened to. If these type of emotions are not dealt with, then it seems to me that the solution can never be anything more than a metaphorical band-aid, residing upon the surface of the skin, but never going deeper.  It is a superficial fix that requires a more nuanced and deeper solution.

I feel with more thoughtful consideration of these emotions and a more developed understanding that these emotions are, in some small part, a portion of the human experience, then will participants involved in mediation feel like they are being heard, fell like their "issues" are being resolved, and both participants will truly reach an agreement that lasts and rewards both parties for the experience.   


Adam - these are all very good points, which I agree with in and try to implement in terms of my own practice.

There are many authors and practitioners (more of the latter than the former) who don't think that the stress we put on this side of conflict is important, necessary or even any of our business. The last element of this critique is important to keep in mind: When we are not invited in to the emotional side of a conflict, how deeply should we probe, and when should we zip it and keep it to ourselves? This question is particularly important with regards to "dark side" emotions, which parties rarely want to discuss.

Thanks for keeping this conversation alive! I think it is a topic that the field needs to engage with often, in an ongoing manner. I know my own treatment of these issues has changed over the years, I wonder what a measurement of "the field", whatever that is, would look like over time.

Hello all,

I now recognize the idealism (for lack of a better term) in my post from earlier in this conversation ... which I just reread,  I still believe that the best mediation is a process that goes deep, but only if that is what the parties want. If at any time we lay down our own blueprint for the process and insist on it... claiming "they will feel so much better" we run the risk of doing harm not good. Party self-determination is what makes this process liberating ... and if that means not exposing one's jugular for other parties to pounce on, or if the fear of such is respected first and foremost, without regard for our (the mediator's) own purposes then we have accomplished a large goal. 

I do still believe that we stray away from examining the dark side of emotions but that is an entirely different entry point. 



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