Managing Client Emotions: How a Meniator Can Help

By White, L. Therese; White, Bill | Dispute Resolution Journal, November-January 2001 | Go to article overview

Managing Client Emotions: How a Meniator Can Help


White, L. Therese, White, Bill, Dispute Resolution Journal


More often than not, disputants are angry and emotional. Unfortunately, their lawyers and advocates are not always equipped to handle such raw emotions. This is when the use of a mediator may be necessary before the party and its attorney or advocate can continue dealing with their opponent. In this article, Therese White and Bill White show some examples of how mediation effectively addresses emotional issues, provides reality checks, and generally paves the way for the resolution of disputes.

Anger. Sadness. Fear. Disgust. Shame. As you well know, disputes are often full of powerful, negative emotions on both sides. Sadly, these emotions can overwhelm good judgement and damage attorney/client relations, thereby reducing the possibility of a timely and successful out-of-court resolution. Sometimes, they even force an otherwise risky and unnecessary trial.

This article is about helping attorneys and other professional conflict managers reestablish order after the client's emotional brain has overpowered his thinking brain. It's also about the effective use of mediators to accomplish this task.

When Emotions Take Over

In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Dan Goleman says, "(emotions) are self-justifying, with a set of perceptions and proofs all their own ...When in control, the emotional mind harnesses the rational mind to its purpose, thus distorting past memories and current realities." What matters is what seems to be rather than what is, what is desired rather than what can be reasonably expected, and what is demanded rather than what can be negotiated.

An emotion is defined as a feeling and its distinctive thoughts, psychological and biological states, and propensities to act. There are hundreds of emotions-good and bad. Emotions have their own variations and nuances, not to mention the ability to blend with other emotions.

Some people manifest their negative emotions in outbursts, others through quiet storms. But one thing for sure is that when people are acting on an emotion (be it for a split second or for a lifetime), they honestly feel it is the best thing to do, no matter how stupid it may appear later.

Most people act out because they prefer a conflict they know to the resolutions they cannot completely imagine. People also use emotion to keep from getting at the core of the conflict, which may be too painful to face head-on. In any event, emotional overreactions and underreactions are merely attempts to gain or regain control.

Experience has shown that given their left-- hemisphere mindset, attorneys sometimes have great difficulty dealing with the emotions of their clients. Having been trained in the logic-driven rigors of fact-finding, analysis, and debate, it can become impossible to properly address highly charged matters of the heart and spirit. For that matter, attorneys often unwittingly feed the emotional fires of their clients. Here's how.

Conventional wisdom demands getting a "good, tough lawyer to protect your interests." Knowing this, some attorneys feel it's their duty to play that role to the extreme. The issues between the disputants then become subordinated to the increasingly complicated litigation process, and the "winner-take-all" battle between the attorneys.

Feeling overwhelmed, the clients are forced to hide behind their attorneys, and relinquish all control over the outcome. At this point, according to mediator Chip Rose in his Web site, "effective communication between the (parties) has been all but eliminated, and..the parties undoubtedly feel more not less fearful and experience greater not less anxiety."

This is where the talents of a good mediator and the benefits of the mediation process can put the attorney and client on the same page. This is how it is done.

Emotions Must Be Expressed

Like it or not, there is no official place for emotions in the litigation process. This is unfortunate in that a simple clearing of the air can move numerous conflicts to resolution. …

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