The other day, a man arrived at mediation so angry he could hardly speak. He certainly wasn’t making eye contact. He slammed his papers onto the desk and shifted impatiently in his chair. I asked him what was up. He was angry at having to be here, furious about the money he was spending and spitting nails at what seemed to him to be a completely pointless exercise: working through the financial disclosure “when we both know what we’ve got and that it isn’t going to be enough”.
My first reaction was the wrong one. I got defensive. Pointed out that he voluntarily agreed to come, and that the hourly rate was reasonable and less than that charged by most solicitors. “That doesn’t stop this whole thing being a complete waste of time”; “But we haven’t even started yet, how do you know that?” I was stupidly letting my professional ego get in the way of a much better approach.
I continued in an unhelpful, rather smug vein by showing them both the flow-chart they had seen in their introductory meeting: it explains why disclosure has to be done, whether you are using mediation or solicitors: without it, no-one can help you negotiate a settlement.
He was still smouldering. We had a few more tetchy exchanges. Finally, finally!, I remembered that this wasn’t how to deal with anger.
I said to him that he still seemed cross. I asked him what about. “Everything”.
And who are you angry with: me? – (politely)No.
Her? – (reluctantly) No.
Who, then? – (ruefully) Myself.
Ah!. Now we could go somewhere with it. I sympathised with him – with them both – saying I could see what a difficult situation they were in, how upsetting it was and how understandable his anger was. I listed all the unfortunate aspects of their case, and told them I could see exactly why they might be feeling hopeless about it.
I also told them that they were amazingly brave to opt for mediation; to choose to work this thing out together, face to face; and that I really hoped I could help. I told them we would be dealing with facts and figures rather than messy emotions; that we would focus on the wayforward rather than on the path that had led them here. I said I would do everything I could to help them reach a solution so that they could draw a line and move on.
I am pleased to say, we worked hard all morning and reached a set of proposals that were eventually converted into a consent order. It had turned out to be simpler than they thought – and they wrote to thank me at the end.
Moral? Anger usually stems from a feeling that you have been misread or wrong-footed, and it is often expressed about something other than the root cause. It seeks to win power over a person or situation, so a defensive, self-righteous response only fuels it. Accepting, analysing and understanding it is a better way forward, whether you are in the mediator’s chair or at home. Good luck!
Author: Caroline Friend, Family Mediator, Oxford.
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