Dealing with Strong Emotions

Nancy Ferrell

Former CRS Mediator, Dallas Office; Private Mediator and Trainer

[Full Interview]


Do you do anything else that you haven't already described to try to manage really strong emotions?


I pay attention to the setting. How people are arranged in the room, whether they're sitting close to each other, if they're really hostile toward each other. I may intentionally put myself between them. Have enough room between them so that they're not going to feel threatened by one another. I remind them in a private meeting, that they may not want to embarrass anybody. "Think of what it's going to cost. If you continue in this direction we're not going to move toward productive resolution. But if you feel that strongly, that may not be an appropriate response." I think that always needs to be restated when emotions are really high. Not to try to push them on, but to give them an out. "If you feel that strongly, this may not be the appropriate avenue. You may need to take legal action. You may need to use another option." Most times they'll come back from that and say, "No, I really want to try to do this. Maybe we need to meet another day, and get some more information." A lot of that I've dealt with in private groups where they've been allowed to really vent as much as they want, and then I begin to test some of that.

This is not a community example, but it's a clear example. Some of the community people believed that this municipality and the business leadership intentionally kept the gas prices in their community high, because those establishment people could all go outside the community to get gasoline. The community was pretty much confined to the community to buy gas and their gasoline prices were higher. I traveled from there and out of there all the time, and the reality was that the prices were cheaper in town than they were out of town. But to say that to them immediately is not helpful. But as they gained trust venting, I began to test some of that and say, "Okay, have you checked some of that out?" So next meeting, they come back with better information.

I had one situation where the community just swore that if you were arrested and a minority, when you were taken to jail you would be beaten, no questions asked. I shared this with the police chief and the staff, his administrators. They were just horrified. One of the deputies said, "We haven't beaten anybody for twenty years!" I said, "Well, they remember." He couldn't believe that the community still carried that perception. I didn't even tell him, as I remember; he had the courage to go ask. He was really horrified that people would say that. He had the courage to ask the prisoners that he had right then, "What did you think was going to happen when you got here?" They said, "We expected to be beaten." He then had the courage to come back to our group and say that. That's what they thought; that's what they believed. I said, "That's the power of history. People carry any incident with them, until there's intentional effort to change that history." You know you haven't done that for twenty years, but there's been no intentional effort to say to the community, "That's not who we are anymore." Those were examples of where you deal with some of the reality checking ahead of time, so you begin to break down some of the myth. You break down as many of the myths as possible, so that by the time you get to the table, there's some basis for discussions. If all of these myths are true, then you don't have much relationship to deal with. If you can see that some of those myths don't have a reality base, then you begin to think that maybe there are some things we can talk about. "If that wasn't true, maybe we were misunderstood."