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Working with emotions

Emotions can be useful and harmful in mediation. Learning how to manage these emotions gives the facilitator an advantage.

What challenges does it focus on?

Ensuring that emotions are acknowledged and managed well

Short summary

Practice shows that emotions are very important. Fear, anger, sadness and feeling happy are the most important ones. Emotions are signals of needs, wishes and fears. So they give access to what is really important to people (interests). Anger, fear or disgust can also be a problem. This tool outlines how facilitators can work with emotions:

  • Allow parties to express their emotions.
  • Show you notice emotions. Make clear that people are allowed to feel what they feel.
  • You can tell parties: “It is ok to be upset and cry”, “Try and let it out as much as possible now, so that we can work together on finding a solution that makes you feel better”
  • After making this clear, it can be necessary to talk about the way emotions are expressed. It is ok to feel angry and to show this, but not to frighten the other party. "Please sit down. Please do not raise your voice too much, but I would like to hear what makes you so angry."
  • Do not push the parties if they are not comfortable to talk about their emotions. You can meet them separately to talk about this or try again next time
view full explanation

Recognise emotions

  • Emotions are expressed in many ways. Look behind what people say. The tone. Their face.
  • Asking about or mentioning the emotion helps. ' Acknowledge the emotions by saying something such as “I can see you are very angry/sad/upset”.
  • This can help the emotional party to calm down. When emotions and the issues behind them are talked about, they will have less intensity. It also gives information about what really matters.
  • Ask each party how they would feel if they were in the other party’s position. It can be very effective if the other party says he understands the emotions.
  • Allowing space (silence) for reflection.
  • Invite supportive people into the process. They can support a more constructive emotional atmosphere

Find out more about emotions

  • Find out exactly what is behind the emotion. People in a conflict have mixed feelings, which they find hard to understand themselves. Many emotions are not simple, pure emotions, but made up of several different emotions (for example anger triggered by a combination of fear, frustration, confusion etc.). Finding out the cause will help to separate these out so that they can be addressed
  • Then try to look which interest is behind it: 'I see you are angry. What makes you angry? ... So you need .... (reframe into interest).
  • Asking ‘why’ may not work, because it can invite thinking in rational, controlled way ("why am I crying whereas I should not cry"). You want to explore what causes the strong feeling (the emotion).
  • Ask the emotional party what the causes of the emotion are. Ask questions like “What makes you feel so angry/sad/upset?”
  • Explore the underlying needs. This will allow the needs to be brought into the open so that they can be taken into account
  • Here are two tools that can help you to support parties to understand and talk about their emotions.

Regulating emotions if they dominate the process

  • Influence the letting go of negative emotions by selecting a time (i.e. festivities) for the meeting that has particular significance.
  • When emotions dominate a meeting, and it does not help to ask more about them, you can try to break the tension:
  • Tell a short joke, or change the discussion to defuse the situation (see Tool 2.8).
  • Take a break for tea or coffee
  • Have a Caucus session to find out more about the problem (Tool 1.4).
  • If the parties do not feel comfortable suggest a break in the facilitation and to start again on another day. Give the parties time to calm down and relax. They might go home and return when they feel better. It may work to ask them to think about an issue. And come back with an answer to that question on a fixed date.

Research evidence

Evidence from practice

  • Time out: Practitioners at a CRDC in Cambodia and interviewed paralegals in Rwanda said that when parties are overcome with emotions the facilitator let them go home and come back when they feel better.
  • Careful use of language: Praxis lawyers in Azerbaijan are careful to use non-intimidating language when asking questions about emotions. This encourages the parties to talk freely. They are also careful to give both parties the space and time they need to say what they want or need to say.

Evidence from handbooks

  • Checklist empathy:
  • Being sensitive to the feelings of clients and able to articulate them
  • Having an active interest in parties and what motivates them
  • See new opportunities for parties
  • Recognise emotions and power relationships and be able to neutralise them or to make them productive to come to a solution.

Evidence from literature

Understanding the causes of common emotions in conflicts There are 5 key concerns that can often trigger strong emotions:

  • Appreciation: does he /she feel understood, heard and valued?
  • Affiliation: does he/she feel treated a friend, family member or colleague?
  • Autonomy: does he/she feel his or her freedom was respected?
  • Status: does he/she feel his or her status was respected as he/she deserves
  • Role: does he/she feels his or her role is fulfilling?

Beyond reason, using emotions as you negotiate, R. Fisher and D. Saphiro, 2005

When one party is upset, ask them to:

  • Explain the behavior that upsets them in specific and objective terms
  • Describe their feelings about what bothers you
  • Try to get the other to view the matter from their perspective
  • Not accuse the other party of misbehavior
  • Show respect for the other party

Adler, R. S., B. Rosen, et al. (1998). "Emotions in Negotiation: How to Manage Fear and Anger." Negotiation Journal: 161-179

The idea of 3 degrees of intervention:


  • attempt to distract parties
  • ask questions to redirect the attention
  • refer to list of issues


  • Identify unacceptable expressions of emotions
  • Remind parties of the guiding principles of mediation
  • Ask parties to recommit to the process


  • Tell the parties that it is not acceptable,
  • Break into separate meetings,
  • Threaten to terminate the mediation unless the emotion is controlled.

Tips to help in situations where emotions are becoming difficult:

  • Break for tea
  • Calling separate meetings for safer emoting
  • Invite parties to suggest ways to deal with emotions
  • In case of a breach or negative behavior of one of the parties:
  • Ignoring the breach as inconsequential or otherwise not requiring an intervention
  • Distracting the parties from the breach with another question
  • Neutrally restating the guidelines and requesting fresh commitment
  • Reprimanding the offending party
  • Breaking into separate meetings
  • Using shaming techniques to bring parties back to business

Boulle, L. & Nesic, M., 2001, p. 195- 196, 161

The PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) provides an example of an alternative way of bringing emotional information to the fore. PECS allows individuals to communicate their feelings more easily and improves social development.

Magiati, I. & Howlin, P. (2003) 'A Pilot Evaluation Study of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) for children with autistic spectrum disorders'. Autism, 7(3) p.297

Best practices