Randy Cheek, Catherine Conner, Laurie Phuong Ertley, and Gary Friedman

When people are in conflict, emotions are inevitable. Yet, there is often a pull to “just get down to business”, with parties and professionals hoping to minimize emotional reactions. However, experience and research show that both emotions and cognitive processing are integral components of decision-making so learning to embrace emotions is a key skill for conflict professionals.

How do people access their emotions? Each person falls along a range in terms of capacity to access their emotional state. For some, this access comes easily, while others may have developed coping mechanisms that give a sense of lacking feelings.  Bringing attention to more subtle indications of emotions in the body such as changes in breathing or the micro facial expressions33, helps to recognize an emotional response. There is also a difference between a patterned, habitual emotional response tand a more genuine, spontaneous response. A conflict professional can benefit from ongoing study of their own emotions so that they can more readily understand the emotions of others in the room.

In addition to the difference in accessing emotions, people differ in their expression of emotion. This may be a personal preference based on temperament, a culturally formed response , and/or it may be impacted by outside and systemic factors such as societal expectations or restrictions regarding the expression of emotion based on a person’s gender, race, or other group. 

It is important, particularly in the contracting process, to normalize accessing and expressing emotion. Having an explicit conversation early on that emotions will arise sets the expectation that there will be emotions in the room and that they are important.

It is possible that emotions will bubble over, particularly when there are feelings of anger, sadness, or betrayal. In emotional and tension filled situations such as a conflict, a person’s limbic system can be on hyperdrive. Studies have shown that a person’s powerful emotions can create a physical reaction in the other through our mirror neurons. When parties get caught up in their reactions to a strong negative emotion, the entire process can escalate. Since conflict resolution professionals may not be as caught up in the emotional state, maintaining a certain level of groundedness or calmness—or just feeling centered—can bring equilibrium in the moment. . Moreover,sometimes acknowledging the overwhelm and allowing a moment of respite is helpful: “What would be helpful for you right now when you are feeling so overwhelmed?”

Looping emotions, rather than trying to change them, is often the best move. The looping may be expressed directly by naming an emotion but sometimes it’s more effective for looping an emotion to be nonverbal through the tone of voice, body posture, energy, and other physical manifestations of the emotion. If someone feels understood, including their emotional state, they can let go of the strong grip an emotion holds over them. In order to loop well, the conflict professional should pay attention to their own inner experience in the moment and use that to understand and connect to the person they are looping. In our trainings, we often ask participants in a role play to switch chairs with a party they are working with in order to viscerally feel what it is like to be them.  While you wouldn’t ask someone you are working with to change chairs, you could imagine doing that to increase your understanding of them.

When conflict professionals have clarity about how their own emotions and experiences are impacting the process, it strengthens the connection of understanding for all involved. Opening the door to emotions of the parties provides the opportunity to develop a resolution with a deeper foundation built upon the motivations and needs of the parties which may otherwise stay hidden if emotions are suppressed. Valuing emotions and rationality as vital aspects of decision-making allows the “wise mind” to emerge.