How Family Mediation techniques can take the stress out of separation
5th April 2019 by Gemma Burden
Stress, conflict, anger and confrontation are an unavoidable part of a family mediator’s life. But just because it is unavoidable does not mean that it is not manageable.
Kenneth Clarke and Gemma Burden have mediated high conflict cases at Laceys for many years and are well versed in the finer arts of conflict-management.
To successfully control high conflict situations requires at least a basic understanding of neuroscience, in order to understand what triggers the physiological stress response. Such a response undermines judgement, memory and decision-making. Mediators have to minimise the debilitating effect of the stress response.
Stress affects all parts of the body and the brain and is driven by various hormones. The two main stress hormones triggered by conflict are adrenaline and cortisol.
Many of us are familiar with the adrenaline response-increased heart rate, sweaty palms, but cortisol has a subtler effect and we are usually unaware of its impact on our judgement and decision making. This is because an adrenaline rush decreases very quickly because it rushes through the nervous system.
Cortisol follows a different path, through the blood stream and can linger in the body for two hours or more. Mediation creates multiple stress triggers and cortisol levels continue to build, creating anxiety, uncertainty and a feeling of being out of control
What we do to decrease stress in mediation sessions
Thanks to their specialised training in high conflict, Kenneth and Gemma use a variety of tools to help clients feel less anxious and stressed in a highly charged situation.
We sometimes begin a mediation with a short confidential individual session with each party. This can help minimise stress and maximise the mediators understanding of the client’s stress levels and how the client is likely to cope with a joint session. Assessing the parties emotional state at the commencement of mediation is vital if the session is to be managed effectively in order to maximise the chances of resolution.
It is important for the mediator to acknowledge and normalise stress as well as emotions. Most mediation training encourages mediators to acknowledge emotions, but acknowledging stress is just as important, as the parties are likely to be feeling stressed before they arrive for their session (unfamiliar surroundings, uncertainty about the process and encountering someone they consider to be an adversary).
Allowing the parties to vent their anger and emotions in mediation is helpful, in that, having got everything “off their chest”, they will be able to focus on solutions. Right?
Wrong! Venting strong emotions is a powerful escalator of the stress response, leading to high levels of cortisol, which make settlement less likely. Venting more often than not simply produces a defensive response from the other side, which exacerbates stress for all involved.
Any venting of strong emotions is best done where clients sit in different rooms and the mediator creates a shuttle environment, ‘shuttling’ between the different rooms to try and reach an agreement. This gives the mediator the opportunity to counteract the emotion and give the party time to recover from high-stress hormone levels prior to returning to the negotiation table.
Name the emotions
Basic mediation training suggests that acknowledging emotions is a way to reduce high emotions. However, studies have revealed that reducing strong emotions is best achieved by getting the party to name their emotion. So instead of saying, “It sounds like this is making you upset and angry”, ask, “What emotion are you feeling right now”?
We also recognise in high conflict mediations that parties need to recover from a strong emotional outburst, before engaging in decision-making. Unless they are given time for the stress hormones to diminish, parties cannot make informed and rational judgments and decisions.
Moderate stress levels help focus attention, whereas high levels make it difficult to hear various viewpoints and options and make important decisions. Parties may need up to 30 minutes to recover from a hormone rush before being able to negotiate effectively.
Finally, in high conflict situations, it is vital that the mediator summarises what was said in the session, to help stressed individuals understand where the other party stands and to ensure that both parties have accurate information in order to evaluate proposals and make informed decisions.
Our deeper understanding of the underlying triggers of conflict has helped clients resolve their mediation, when at the outset either one or both parties thought that resolution was beyond them.
If you would like any further advice on mediation please contact our Mediation department on 01202 721822 or firstname.lastname@example.org who will be happy to help.