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Yesterday, I spoke to a meeting of a volunteer service organization. I talked to them about the barriers I see people putting in their way of resolving conflict, how to recognize those barriers, and how to set them aside so you can resolve conflict in the best possible way for yourself.

In the Q&A session at the end of my talk, one person at the meeting asked, “What do you do if people get emotional? If someone’s yelling, for example, or crying. What you do about that?”

That’s a good question. I see strong emotions in mediation a lot – no surprise there! I’ve seen people yell, swear, bully, sneer, and insult. What I do to deal with it depends on what my parties need.

If my clients are talking to each other in a way satisfies both of them, then no matter what I think about how they’re talking, I let them continue. I’ve mediated with parties who are from a country, culture, or communication style very different from my own. To me, they sound like they’re arguing, or even like they’re being disrespectful. I know that if I talked that way to someone who uses the same communication style as I do, we’d never be able to resolve the conflict. But if my clients are making progress, I honor their style of conflict resolution and let them talk.

However, if my clients are yelling, swearing, etc. and intimidating, scaring, or angering other clients, I don’t let them continue. Instead, I work with them to use their emotions in a way that helps the mediation rather than hindering it. For example, I help them express themselves, but not so angrily, without sneering or insults, etc. I help them express their underlying concern that’s making them angry, or the reasons why they’re being disrespectful.

My policy is that if parties don’t respond to my diplomatic, and then firm, interventions, I’ll end the mediation. I haven’t had to do that yet, but I have reminded people that I’ve warned them about their behavior, and if they do it one more time, I will end the mediation.

I deal with crying differently. Some of my clients think that if the other person is crying, whey must be trying to manipulate them, or emotionally blackmail them. Usually, that isn’t what they’re doing; usually, when someone cries, they’re distressed, overwhelmed, or even angry.

Parties rarely cry in joint sessions; more often, it’s in caucus. If someone cries in caucus, I bring out my packet of tissues and let them cry. If someone does cry during a joint session, I’ll offer to give them a break if they need it.

So, what if you’re in a conversation, dispute, or conflict and the other person shows strong emotion, and you don’t have a mediator present? Is there anything you can do for yourself?

The answer is yes, there are lots of things you can do for yourself. My first suggestion, as I told the person who asked the question after my talk yesterday, is to breathe. That’s right, just breathe. For a variety of physiological reasons, breathing deeply and steadily has a calming effect. Also, breathing gives you some time to decide what you want to do next.

My second suggestion is, if you’re so shocked, intimidated, or angry that you don’t know what to do, continue breathing. You can also just look at the person. Often, the expression on your face will be enough to let them know that you don’t like how they’ve talked to you. If the person is crying, you can give them time to compose themselves.

Third, most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with saying that you can’t continue the conversation under the circumstances, and leaving. You can say, “I can tell that you’re angry (or disgusted, or upset, or whatever fits the emotion behind what they’re doing). I can’t continue this conversation like this. If you can speak more calmly, great. Otherwise, we’ll have to continue it at another time.” Of course, in that moment you may not be able think of anything to say other than, “I can’t continue this conversation.” That’s fine. Just continue to breathe, and leave the conversation.

If the person is above you in the reporting chain, you’ll have to be careful about this of course, but you might be able to request permission to leave. If you don’t get permission, you may need to continue concentrating on breathing. Then, once you can leave, make some notes and go straight to HR.

Here’s an example of how I dealt with something like this once myself. I was in a meeting with someone who constantly sounded angry and pushy. His conversational style was what I’d tactfully call “overlapping,” but privately, I thought he was interrupting and dismissive. At some point, I’d had enough, so I said, “Our conversational styles are clearly different. I value being able to say what I have say fully and completely, all at once. I didn’t interrupt you while you were speaking. I’d appreciate it if you did the same.” He was startled, but he stopped talking and didn’t say anything more until I finished what I had to say.

Dealing with strong emotions can be hard. I recommend that you breathe, keep breathing, and leave the conversation if necessary. If it’s simply too hard to have a productive conversation with another person, that’s a good time to call a mediator and have them lead you in a civil, respectful, problem-solving conversation to resolve the conflict and set some guidelines for how the two of you will interact in the future.

Photo credit: © 2013 NYU Stern BHR, CC BY-NC 2.0.

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