The Role of Emotions in Conflicts

Studying and practicing mediation led me to understand the crucial role of emotions during conflicts. It is very clear that emotions have to be dealt with first before any solution can be found.

Jones and Bodtker (2001) discuss “how important and difficult it is to effectively decode or interpret emotional expressions and how inadvertent sending of emotional messages is linked to potentially unproductive conflict” (p. 218). The authors suggest emotions can be broken down into three components.

The Cognitive Component

The source of emotional distress lies in how we interpret or appraise certain situations and events, not in the events themselves. All we can control is our own response to people and events (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 236). Not only do we feel things, but we also have feelings about our feelings. These so called meta-emotions are formed “by our values and beliefs about emotions; thus, they are taught and culturally determined” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 240).

Physiological Component

Emotions as “’embodied experiences’ that radiate through the body as ongoing lived experience” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 221). Two phenomena are important to be aware of.

Emotional flooding. Described as “system overload – being swamped by emotion to the extent that one cannot function or think effectively” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 228). Jones and Bodtger (2001) quote research by Perry et al. (1995) that shows how “intense emotion blocks the ability of the brain to access information from the neo-cortex”. This practically disables people from being mindful and thinking in more complex, strategic and creative ways. All that is accessible to us when flooded are the so called “fight, flight or freeze” reactions. Causes of flooding can be external – perceptions of threatening behavior by the other - or internal - e.g. our own thoughts, memories, negative self-talk. Symptoms of flooding can be tense muscles, rapid breathing, negative facial expressions and perspiration. In some cases, people may appear outwardly calm even when flooded.

Emotional contagion. This is described as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expression, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 232). Research suggests “emotional contagion and empathy are not related” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 232).

Behavioral or Expressive Component.

This isthe behavioral response to, or expression of the cognitively appraised and physiologically ‘felt’ experience” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 221); all the ways in which we intentionally or unintentionally communicate what we are feeling or want others to think we are feeling (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p.224). Experts distinguish between two types of emotional expressions: hard-wired and socially influenced. Not all emotional expression is communicative, as children we are taught certain rules for interpreting and expressing emotion and if an emotional expression is socially appropriate depends on gender, age and social status of the communicator, if there are witnesses or “social prescriptions on how negative the emotional expression can be” (Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p.221). Most of the time emotions are communicated non-verbally, most often expressed through the face. Whenever a person’s words are not congruent with the body language, we tend to - sometimes unconsciously - trust the body language more than the words (Remland, 1999 as quoted by Jones & Bodtker, 2001).

Implications for Conflict Mediation

People can become very strategic and manipulative about their emotional expression and there is a continuum from spontaneous to completely strategic. There are very strong differences of how emotions are being expressed among different cultures and as a mediator I need to be aware of those differences and my own bias and assumptions. To deal effectively with emotions the authors suggest three conditions must be met:

  1. Parties must feel the mediator is creating a safe space to talk that is private, confidential, supportive, respectful and allows for open expression of frustrations, while not allowing personal attacks.

  2. That the relevant issues are being addressed

  3. Relevant issues are being talked about in a way that facilitates reappraisal

(Jones & Bodtker, 2001, p. 236).

As a mediator I can support the parties to become aware of their emotions and see a situation differently for themselves by asking open ended questions. It is important not to try and fix the person’s situation, but to focus on empowerment, which will come from more awareness of their situation and response to it, stimulate creativity, and help disputants see things from a new perspective. Mediators will often have to deal with multiple and sometimes conflicting emotions. The more nuanced and complex the emotions, the more skilled I have to be in practicing mindfulness and active listening.

Becoming sensitive to disputants’ susceptibility and causes for emotional flooding and contagion is also very important. When a dispute is very emotionally loaded I can help disputants address each other in ways that don’t cause flooding. It is not advised to continue a mediation session when people are flooded, but to have a break for collective or self-calming activities, like going for a walk.


Jones, T. S., & Bodtker, A. (2001). Mediating with heart in mind: Addressing emotion in mediation practice. Negotiation Journal, 17(3), 207-244.

Simone TorreyComment