I have seen it said that feelings and emotions can get in the way of understanding and empathising with people. From my experience as a mediator in “high feeling” mediation meetings, I can see this point. Feelings and associated emotions can be heightened and expressive, to a point where it is difficult for one, other, or both sides to clearly communicate their needs and goals, or listen to the needs and goals of the other party. Without this clarity in communication, common ground can be elusive. However, on the plus side, in these situations there is a degree of transparency; parties tend to be aware of where the other is at, and as a mediator you are clear what you are working with and can enquire into the meaning of these feelings and the part they play in the conflict.
Yet, what I have also found is that in the few cases in mediation where a resolution was not reached, significant feelings and emotions went unexpressed. The unwillingness on the side of one party to express these feelings to the other creates a blockage to finding common ground. There is no blame attached here, for someone to tell another person what they are feeling, especially feelings related to conflict, usually means encountering a certain vulnerability. It is natural that feeling or appearing vulnerable to someone we are in dispute with can be challenging, it makes sense.
I said that unexpressed feelings and emotions create a blockage. This is a blockage within the human organism that prevents lucid thought and reasoning. Sensations, which lead to feelings, are primary data from which we make sense of the world around us. If there are particularly strong feelings held inside and not expressed by a party in mediation, it can be very difficult for other issues to be considered on their merits and with grounded reasoning. Our physiological system is overwhelmed by these feelings and keeps returning to them, even if you start down what seems to be a route to an agreement. To look forward and build enough trust for a signed agreement, a person often needs to exorcise the ghosts of the past, through expressing what hasn’t been expressed and what is therefore likely to be at least partly perpetuating the conflict.
If you are reading this as a mediator, one option is to explore unexpressed feelings in the private meeting, and be curious as to what these feelings mean for the person concerned and how it will be to walk away from the meeting with these feelings unexpressed, and an agreement not reached.
Sometimes in a mediation, unexpressed feelings can arise covertly in the joint meeting. A person may say something related to how they feel, but not overtly, and not directly to the other party. In the past I have asked a party in the joint meeting if they would like to say what they are feeling directly to the person they are in dispute with. To do this you need to be confident in the working alliance you have with both parties, and the capacity of person A to hear what person B has to say. If you ask someone if they would like to express what they are feeling, and they do so, and the other party replies with something like “I couldn’t care less about your feelings”, even though it was just a suggestion to party B, it’s likely you may cop some of the blame! Additionally, someone may not wish to have the spotlight shone on any feelings they do or don’t have. If in any way you are unsure how a question related to sharing feelings in the joint meeting will be received, then check it out first in a private meeting. If people consider their feelings to have been “outed” without their consent, then they are likely to feel shame – not a good place for a party to be in a mediated process.
However, there are a number of mediations I have conducted where the expression of a person’s feelings directly to the other party had a significant impact on unblocking a process that was seemingly stuck, and allowed the mediation to move forward. I also remember mediations where unexpressed feelings were at the heart of a non-agreement. The sharing of feelings, often shares the hurt that we have struggled to move past. It is natural that all human beings feel pain, hurt, distress, anger, rage, sadness, and on, not just in a family or personal relationship, but in ALL human relationships. Such emotions are primary, help people through them and you will enable them to see daylight and a way forward.
Having said this, I appreciate this topic of unexpressed feelings may not apply to all mediations. The world of human relationships, conflict, difference, dispute, argument, comes in many different shapes and forms. There is no magic wand to resolving a relationship in crisis. But next time you find yourself stuck in dispute, either in your own day-to-day life, or professionally as a mediator, ask yourself, is there a feeling here that is unexpressed?
Incidentally, if you never find yourself in dispute, get in touch and tell me your secret! Or, if you’ve expressed all the feelings you have and are still intractably in conflict, think about taking a holiday, somewhere like the picture at the top of this post. Good luck building your relationships.
(Photo by Sho Hatakeyama on Unsplash)