two girls holding a mirror

Holding up the Mirror

The Role of Emotion in Achieving Success in Mediation


I have grappled with many things in my years of mediation practice, but the question of success is one that is ever present for me as a practitioner and a trainer of mediators. What is success in mediation? What is the interplay between success and resolution?  What maximizes the likelihood of achieving success?

Role of Emotion

In this article I will be looking at the role of emotion in conflict and how it is used, or not, in helping to reach resolution.   Workplace, community, and family mediation are my point of reference because of the interpersonal relationships at the center of these disputes. However, even in commercial disputes where resolution revolves in large part around financial agreements, emotions are present and will influence the quality and nature of negotiations.


In Western style mediation (with its focus on identifying and meeting individual interests and needs in a verbal exchange), resolution and success are intimately linked. This would be fine except for the narrowness with which resolution is usually defined, with the resulting limitations this imposes on the process, and I would argue, with the chances of mediation being successful in the long term.

The problem as I see it is twofold.  Firstly, mediation and resolution, one a process, the other an outcome, have become almost synonymous.  Secondly and more importantly, resolution is more often than not narrowly defined as an agreement on practical issues with sometimes, if you’re lucky, an acknowledgment of an improvement in relationship. The difficult emotions, perceptions and assumptions associated with the conflict are not explored. This leads to a resolution that is half-hearted at best and unsustainable in the long term.

The reason resolution, and by extension, success is defined so narrowly, likely has to do in part with the history of mediation and how it evolved out of the legal field. That we are part of a “time is money”, “fix- it”, “leave emotions at the door” culture is part of it too. It is fueled (with no ill will intended) by those who commission mediation because have identified a problem and want it resolved as quickly and economically as possible. Parties too, when they think of mediation think of “resolution” i.e. agreement, because mediation as it is understood presently, is pretty much synonymous with these concepts.  On the other hand, in a strange twist, potential parties sometimes struggle to consider mediation because the idea of resolving anything with the other person is so inconceivable (or perhaps threatening) that they reject it out of hand.

What concerns me about this narrow definition of resolution, and by implication of success, is its diminished potential to address the deep-seated interpersonal issues and opportunities for understanding and repairing relationships and the expansion of options that this makes possible.


A broad definition of mediation itself is helpful particularly because of its close relation to resolution.

Mediation: a process whereby parties achieve a clearer and deeper understanding of the situation, themselves, and the other and which consequently clarifies and reveals a wider range of options and choices. These choices will form the foundation for concrete agreement(s).

Resolution: an outcome where parties, empowered by their new understanding of themselves, the other, and the situation, achieve a heightened awareness of their strengths and internal resources from which they can make decisions.

This definition of resolution is one I’m comfortable with for measuring what constitutes a successful outcome.  If the parties are willing to engage at this level an agreement on the practical issues will follow.  The work of the mediator is in getting the parties to this point.

Holding up the mirror – the emotional landscape

 In most conflicts, whether in the workplace, family, or community, the parties are often deeply entrenched in their views and have suffered considerable turmoil and emotional and physical distress.

As mediators we are constantly making choices about where and what to focus our attention on.  We need to understand some of the facts and the context of the situation; the emotional effect it’s had on the parties; to identify and explore unmet interests and needs; to identify (and challenge) perceptions and assumptions; and finally, perhaps, understand hopes and dreams for the future.

As you have probably gleaned by now, I emphasize the resolution of issues less and less, particularly in the first stages of mediation. Or, to put it another way, I use the issues to explore what is getting in the way of resolution. I encourage parties to share the web of emotions, perceptions, understandings, and assumptions that have built up as the conflict has unfolded. Through this process walls begin to crumble, and people begin to see their image reflected in the other. As one party expressed with wonderment and some disbelief to the other after a heartfelt exchange “we are like a mirror of each other”.

Choosing to go to these difficult places has become a deliberate choice in my practice. By helping the parties access the intangible, more nebulous and messy area of emotions, and encouraging them to explore their own projections and shadows, a deeper more authentic dialogue can take place.

Surfacing difficult emotions (hatred, fear, confusion, disdain, sadness, despair) present in these complex cases and exploring the deeply held perceptions and assumptions that each have of the other creates a space where mutual recognition and understanding are possible. This has a diffusing effect and releases new, and positive energy. This energy can then be used for identifying options and problem-solving the practical and relational issues. My experience is that once the misunderstandings and assumptions are cleared up the practical issues are resolved relatively quickly. The hardest part of my work is done.

In choosing to focus on the emotional aspects of a conflict I am regularly asked by new mediators about the boundary between mediation and counseling or therapy. My answer is clear: mediation is not therapy or counseling; one does not “dig” into a person’s history in order to understand deep seated motivation or find triggers for behavior or emotional states, nor does one create dependence on the mediator for emotional well-being. However, when strong emotion is present in mediation and relates to the conflict at hand, it presents an invaluable opportunity for furthering the primary propose of the mediation, namely achieving clarity and understanding of the impact of the conflict on a person’s life and what can be done to change things for the better.



Going to these difficult emotional places can be scary both for the mediator and the parties.  It requires courage, faith in the process, and a willingness to take risks.  The mediator needs the parties’ implicit and sometimes explicit permission to go to these places. Mediators must tread carefully and allow the parties to guide us.

Patience and persistence

Patience and persistence are required to support the parties through this emotional process. Perceptions and assumptions are not easily abandoned; it is not easy to acknowledge that one’s version of the conflict story is partial at best and perhaps downright faulty.  Even more difficult is coming to terms with one’s own contribution in creating and keeping the conflict alive.

Perspective taking

Because mediators are seeing and engaging with the conflict from the ‘outside’, we are able to enlarge the lens through which the parties see the conflict. This external perspective lets in much that was hidden and allows for a third understanding (or story) to be created by the parties together. They can then begin to let go of blaming each other and focus instead on understanding how the situation developed, choices that were made (or not), and how each contributed to the resulting escalation and polarization.

Building Trust

Obviously for the parties to feel safe enough to engage at this level trust in the mediator and the mediation process is essential. By meeting the parties where they are, building empathy and not rushing the process, a foundation of trust is built whereby parties are willing to explore the messy landscape of negative emotions, assumptions and unexpressed or unidentified needs.

Transformation or Problem Solving?

This approach can be described as “transformative”, where empowerment and recognition between the parties are given priority. In contrast, “problem solving” focuses on identifying issues, building an agenda and generating options etc.  Although I hold transformation as a high value I do not think it is helpful to categorize oneself too narrowly, as a narrowly defined approach cannot possibly do justice to a complex process.  Applying a range of approaches, depending on the context and needs of the parties, will enhance the chances of success.

The narrative, “Jane, can you tell us what has happened over the past few months and how you see the situation”; the facilitative, “Jane, how do you respond to what you’ve just heard?” and the transformational, “Jane, what have you learned from this last exchange?” all have a place in the process.

The narrative focus asks the parties to share their “story” about the conflict, how they see it, experience it, and explain it.  The mediator listens for opportunities for potential transformative dialogue where hidden, or not so hidden, assumptions and misconceptions of the other can be explored.  Embedded within both approaches is the facilitative where the mediator uses enhanced listening skills to encourage dialogue and a full exploration of the issues and the impact of the conflict on both parties.  This approach guides the parties to a clear and deeper recognition of each other (transformation). As the parties begin to see each other differently and create a different story/rationale of the conflict, a positive energy is released that empowers the parties to problem solve with creativity and enthusiasm.

Training Implications

In many mediation training models (even those purporting to take a ‘transformational’ approach) new mediators are more often than not encouraged to take a problem-solving approach with lip service paid to encouraging recognition and empowerment.  This approach is driven by the unspoken goal of fulfilling the new mediator’s need to feel “successful” in what is a complex and challenging craft and, because from a training perspective, a problem-solving approach is easier to teach!

Over the years I have accepted the complex, unpredictable and layered nature of mediation.  When teaching new mediators, I prepare them for the interpersonal juggling act they are about to embark on by asking them to loosen their need for control, neatness and certainty, and to embrace a commitment to being in the moment.  They will need to develop their comfort level with emotion and particularly with difficult emotions.  By staying “with” the parties and trusting their skills and the process, they will find a way through.  Indeed, they will guide the parties through to a resolution that will be truer and more likely to last.

Related Readings

Cloke, K. Resolving Personal and Organizational Conflict: Stories of Transformation and Forgiveness – Jossey-Bass 2000

Folger, J and Bush, R. The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition – Jossey-Bass 1995

Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence – Bloomsbury Publishing 1996

A version of this article was published by in 2014


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