Tempers often flare during divorce and custody mediations, so dealing with emotions is a large part of what I do.
For example, last year I worked with a divorcing couple who had two kids. According to “Molly,” her husband had a drinking problem. “Mike” admitted that he had a tendency to become angry when drinking. (Between you and me, he also had a tendency to become angry during our mediation session.)
And then there was “Roseanne,” who confronted “Dan” in my office with a profanity-laced tirade complete with undeniable evidence that he brought a prostitute into their house while Roseanne was away on a business trip. At first, Dan was belligerently defensive, and then he became ashamed.
Although those two couples were clearly agitated, I could not, nor would I tell them to calm down.
Highly emotional situations can still be challenging for me, in spite of many years of training and experience. That being said, I’m going to offer you a few tips on how you, yourself, can calm a highly emotional situation. And I understand that it’s a lot to expect of you when you’re in the heat of the moment. Maybe you can practice these when refereeing your kids or your co-workers before you actually step into your own boxing ring.
Tip #1: Pay attention.
Tip #2: Be respectful.
Tip #3: Have empathy.
Okay, let’s break these down into bite-sized pieces. And by bite-sized, I mean two powerful statements corresponding to each of these three tips.
WHAT TO SAY TO SHOW YOU’RE PAYING ATTENTION:
I want to know what’s going on.
I will listen carefully.
WHAT TO SAY TO BE RESPECTFUL:
I respect that you feel strongly about your position.
I respect that you are sincerely trying to resolve the problem.
WHAT TO SAY TO SHOW EMPATHY:
I understand that you’re frustrated.
I would like to work together to solve this.
Obviously, it’s easier to remain calm when you haven’t a stake in the outcome of the argument. When you’re in the thick of it, the natural tendency is to tune the other person out so that you can think about what you’re going to say next. And what you say next is likely to be accusatory and/or exaggerated. “You make me furious!” “You always jump to the wrong conclusions.”
I’ll give you a moment to figure out what’s wrong here. Hint: it’s pretty basic and you already know the answer.
Starting your sentences with “you” won’t help you arrive at a solution. Add in a “never” or an “always,” and I hate to tell you, but you’re probably going to be wrong. Instead, start your sentences with “I” as demonstrated above. And eliminate “never” and “always” from your vocabulary, unless it’s an absolute (“Sunday always follows Saturday” or “The Courthouse is never open on Christmas.”)
Two small adjustments — starting your sentence with “I” instead of “you” and eliminating “never” and “always” from statements you make in anger — will have a significant impact in calming down an emotional conversation.