Managing Anger in Mediation8 min read

As a divorce mediator working with divorcing couples for over 30 years, I have learned that helping clients manage their anger during the divorce process is often the most effective tool in facilitating my clients’ settlement process.

Anger can hijack the parties’ ability to think clearly, leading to poor judgment and decision making. Spouses with hot tempers do foolish things. If expressions of anger are not controlled during the mediation process anger causes mistakes that the parties will regret later.  Anger is not static and if one party’s anger is not controlled anger is often contagious. Your clients always lose when they lose their tempers, and they can get stuck in the crisis and chaos of divorce instead of focusing on how to problem solve and make wise decisions.

Divorce mediators who develop the skills needed to help manage their clients’ expressions of anger will not only achieve greater settlement success but can also transform the conflict interaction between the parties. When anger is managed the parties are better able to offer positive solutions and preserve peace.

Here are four skills to manage anger in mediation.

1. Learn to Recognize Anger Types

Edwin Markham describes the way people express their anger by identifying four anger types, the Machine Guns, Mutes, Martyrs, and Manipulators. All four expressions of anger can derail the success of the mediation process.

The Machine Gun are those who spread their anger in all directions indiscriminately and out of control. The Mutes are like “crock pots” and will be silent and stew in their anger. The Martyrs will hold a pity party for themselves, and the Manipulators don’t get mad they get even. Regardless of how the anger is expressed, the mediator must be able to look past their words and actions and try to recognize that their anger is a natural and mostly automatic response to pain of one form or another.

2. Help the Parties Understand the Cause of the Anger

Anger is often a reaction to inner suffering and can occur when people feel hurt, rejected, threatened, frustrated, fearful, experience loss or feel inadequate. Many of us are familiar with the expression:  hurt people, hurt people.

The mediator should try to determine where the expression of anger is coming from. Is one party hurt because the other party wants the divorce, and they don’t want it? Is the party frustrated and scared because of the impact the divorce will have on their finances? Are they depressed because they are not going to be able to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed before the divorce? Is the party fearful because she has been a stay-at-home mother for many years and is afraid to re-enter the work force even though she wants to work after the divorce?

The mediator needs to be mindful of the underlying causes of the anger and guide the parties to constructively talk about their anger so that angry outbursts are managed and the party’s anger isn’t allowed to silently fester and grow.

For example, a Husband may have been angry with his Wife during the marriage because she never worked during the marriage and his anger has grown since in his mind, she has made little to no effort to find employment since their separation. He lets her know that he thinks she is just lazy and doesn’t want to work and he is constantly directing angry insults to her about her lack of employment. The Wife then responds with equal anger that her husband doesn’t appreciate anything she has done and that his career would have amounted to nothing without her support at home. During the mediation session the spouses take turns throwing verbal daggers at each other. After observing one of these angry conflict interactions in the mediation, the mediator will want to help each party recognize and acknowledge the cause of their respective anger.

The husband’s anger may be caused by his anxiety related to the financial realities of the divorce. He may be afraid and frustrated that he will not have enough money to pay his Wife the amount of support she needs. He feels inadequate. The Wife’s anger is caused by the hurt she feels because her Husband doesn’t appreciate the twenty years that she stayed home to raise the kids and support him by running the household so he could excel in his career. She is also fearful that no one will want to hire a woman in her late 40’s who has no computer skills and hasn’t worked in 15 years.

The mediator might say to Husband, “it sounds like you are concerned you won’t have enough money to pay support.” The Husband will then have opportunity to talk about the financial anxiety he feels. The mediator might suggest that the Husband consider how scary it must be for his Wife to be looking for work when she hasn’t been employed for over 15 years. The wife may respond, “I am sorry that I haven’t found a job yet, I want to work, but I am frightened, and I hope you will be a little more patient with me. I am trying I really am”. Husband responds that he wants his Wife to be financially secure, but he is afraid she won’t have enough money if she doesn’t find at least part time work. He admits that he is frustrated and feels inadequate because he doesn’t know how he can fix their financial problems.

By facilitating this dialog, the parties may recognize that their anger may be the result of simply misunderstanding or misinterpreting their spouses actions and assigning their own negative meaning to them. Instead of assuming the worst motivation when responding to anger, encourage the offended party to consider the real cause of the angry outburst.

3. Guide the Parties to Respond Constructively to Anger

The best path forward is to help the parties understand anger – its roots, triggers, and consequences so that the parties can cultivate the ability to constructively respond to and manage anger. There is a destructive way of expressing and responding to anger, but anger can also be constructive and lead to transformation. Talking about the causes of the parties’ anger will often lead to a meaningful breakthrough in their ability to empathize with the other party’s fear, hurt and frustration. The ability to recognize and acknowledge the other party’s feelings can lead to transforming anger into another emotion that leads to constructive solutions and will remove anger as an obstacle to settlement. Couples who learn to constructively resolve their anger during the mediation process will also be able to apply what they have learned to constructively resolve future conflicts that may and often arise post-divorce.

Through facilitating a meaningful dialog between the parties the mediator may also discover that ideally more intervention is needed to manage the party’s anger. In some cases, even the most skilled mediator will not have sufficient tools to quell the parties anger and will find it necessary to refer one or both parties to a Marriage and Family Therapist, Psychologist, divorce coach or other mental health professional when it appears the anger will remain out of control without additional professional support and guidance.

4. Incentivize the Parties to Control Their Anger

Mediators should always remind their clients that if they remain angry, they may derail the mediation process. Instead of being able to offer solutions they will create problems because anger solves nothing. The mediator should remind the parties that they have chosen a cooperative process and that while it is not unusual to experience feeling of anger during the divorce process, they must learn to constructively manage their anger if they want to successfully settle all the issues in their divorce in mediation.

Here are some things the mediator might say to the parties in mediation to help incentivize the parties to manage their anger.

  • Someone else’s bad behavior is not a reason to lose your temper and respond angrily.
  • Anger solves nothing and creates problems.
  • Do you want to create problems or offer solutions?
  • The aim of argument, or of discussion should not be victory but understanding, compromise and progress.
  • Freedom from anger often requires forgiveness of the party even when you don’t think the other party deserves your forgiveness.
  • Are you willing to make changes to make it better?
  • Do you want to be right or have a healthy relationship with your co-parent?
  • Conflict and anger between co-parents are the main causes of distress for their children post-divorce.
  • Uncontrolled angry comments about a parent often harm the relationship of their children with the other parent.
  • Is this the behavior that you want to model for your children?

Do you think that your angry outbursts at the other parent will make your child feel more secure or less secure? When parties choose to mediate their divorce, they have selected a problem-solving cooperative process; however, even though they have wisely selected mediation they are no different than other divorcing couples when it comes to the hurt, frustration, and fears that are experienced by many divorcing couples during the divorce process. Mediators who develop skills to recognize and understand the different types of anger and can help the parties understand and constructively respond to anger will have greater settlement success and can provide the parties new skills that can positively transform the way the parties handle conflict in the future.

Our office is located at 7700 Irvine Center Dr., Suite 800, Irvine, CA 92618.

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