As mediators, we frequently encounter volatile mediation situations. Sometimes it can even be hard to keep our own anger in check as we focus on maintaining our neutrality in high conflict mediations. Anger, however, can actually be our ally in moving toward resolution if we know how to leverage its positive power.

What is your first reaction when someone becomes agitated or raises their voice? Whether the other person’s ire is directed at you or someone else, most of us have one of two reactions: anger or avoidance. Mediators must guard against avoiding anger when it is expressed in mediation. There are many tools we can use to contain angry feelings without allowing them to derail progress in the mediation. We can slow down the conversation by frequent reframing in neutral language. We can remind the parties of any ground rules we have established that support an atmosphere of civility—even in the face of strong disagreement. We can call a caucus and allow the situation to cool off before returning to the mediation table. We can ask open-ended questions that lead the parties to identifying the underlying root of the anger.

Experienced mediators know that the latter strategy can often be the turning point in a mediation. To understand how this happens, we must first recognize that anger is a secondary emotion. The physical and verbal expression of anger allows the person to take some kinetic action that is actually fueled by other primary emotions. One often sees this illustrated as an iceberg or a pyramid. Anger is what is seen above the water line. The emotion beneath that outward expression, however, is often the key to understanding.

As a mediator builds skill in drawing out primary emotions, actionable options begin to appear. Before your next contentious mediation, think ahead and write down a few questions that might lead you to uncovering the primary emotion behind some angry expressions. For example:

“You are expressing some real anger about this, Dan. Where do you think it is coming from?”

“Let’s stay with that thought for a minute, Bob. Other than anger, what emotions are you feeling right now?”

“Tell us a little more about what it feels like when Linda does x?”

What other questions could you add to this list?