08 Feb Understanding and navigating the storm out in mediation
Understanding and navigating the storm out in mediation
The air hangs heavy with unspoken tension. Two figures sit across from each other, their faces etched with a cocktail of anger, hurt, and exhaustion. Suddenly, one explodes. A chair scrapes back, a harsh word hangs in the air, and they storm out, leaving behind a stunned mediator and a swirling vortex of emotional debris. The dreaded “storm out” – a dramatic punctuation mark in the already turbulent narrative of divorce.
During divorce negotiations, a powerful display of emotion can often be seen when someone is feeling disrespected, undervalued or angered – this is known as a “storm out”. It is a physical reaction, relying solely on non-verbal cues, conveying feelings that cannot be put into words. Whether it is a conscious decision to make a statement or a product of emotional overload, storm outs can often be a clear indicator of the intensity of the situation.
But, what prompts this response? And how can we effectively navigate through this turbulent moment in mediation, to ultimately reach a resolution?
Examining the triggers
A storm out isn’t simply a tantrum thrown by an overgrown child. It’s a complex emotional response, often triggered by a potent mix of factors:
■ Overwhelmed by emotions: The tumultuous emotional journey of divorce can be an all-consuming force, capable of overpowering even the most composed individuals. Amidst the chaos of anger, grief, and fear, emotions can reach a boiling point and explode into a whirlwind of intensity. Some may storm out in a reactionary flood of overwhelming feelings, while others strategize, using their departure as a clear message to their partner. One thing is certain about these emotional outbursts- they are a clear indication of the depth and intensity of emotions at play, too powerful to be contained by mere words.
■ Feeling unheard or misunderstood: When communication breaks down, and individuals feel their perspectives aren’t acknowledged, frustration builds, pushing them to the brink of eruption.
■ Triggering words or topics: Some words or phrases can be like emotional landmines that trigger past traumas and ignite intense feelings of anger or sadness. When these triggers arise during mediation, individuals may respond by storming out in order to shield themselves from further emotional pain or reliving past traumas. Each person’s triggers can be unique and may need to be handled with care and empathy in order to effectively address them. When confronted with these triggers during mediation, they may respond by storming out to protect themselves from further emotional distress or re-traumatisation. Triggers can be unique to each individual and may require sensitivity and support to address effectively.
■ Loss of control: The legal and logistical complexities of divorce can leave individuals feeling powerless. A storm out might be a desperate attempt to regain a sense of control, albeit a temporary and destructive one.
■ Underlying trauma: For individuals coping with unresolved trauma, the emotionally charged atmosphere of divorce can be particularly destabilising, triggering flashbacks or panic attacks that manifest as flight. It is important for mediators and professionals to recognize the underlying reasons behind storm outs and address them appropriately. This may involve exploring the emotional triggers or power dynamics at play, offering emotional support, or adjusting the process to better accommodate the needs of the parties.
The ripple effect: consequences of the storm out
While a storm out might offer a temporary release of tension, the consequences can be far-reaching:
• Traumatized relationships: A storm out can severely damage the bond between individuals, eroding trust and respect, and widening the emotional gap between them.
• Stalled progress: Intermittent disruptions during the mediation process can hinder the journey towards resolution, adding to the already mounting fears and uncertainties.
• Crippling self-blame: Post-storm out, individuals may feel guilty and blame themselves, further burdening an already difficult situation.
• Premature end: A storm out can abruptly terminate negotiations and push the parties towards a more adversarial route, such as resorting to litigation.
• Calling for introspection: A storm out can act as a wake-up call for parties to reflect on their stances, priorities, and objectives, prompting them to reassess and potentially find common ground.
What to do after a storm out?
When emotions run high, navigating the aftermath of a storm out requires both empathy and strategic intervention:
• Stay calm and composed: It is essential for the mediator to remain calm and composed, even when faced with an emotional storm out. Demonstrating a composed demeanor can help de-escalate the situation and provide a sense of stability and safety for the remaining parties.
• Allow time for decompression: Don’t pressure the individual who stormed out to immediately re-engage. Acknowledge their emotions and provide space for them to cool down and gather themselves. Offer a separate room or area where they can regain their composure. Giving them space and time can help diffuse their emotions and give them an opportunity to reflect on their actions.
• Fostering open communication: After allowing a period of calm to pass, initiate a discussion in a neutral setting or separate session. Encourage the individual to openly express their feelings and identify the triggers that sparked the outburst.
• Engaging in active listening and validation: Actively listen and genuinely acknowledge their concerns, recognizing the validity of their emotions even if you don’t agree with their actions.
• Pinpointing triggers: Collaborate to identify the specific triggers that led to the outburst, enabling the individual to develop coping strategies for future conflicts.
• Re-establishing trust: Emphasize the importance of open and honest communication to rebuild trust. Assure the individual that their voice and perspectives are valued and that both parties are committed to finding a fair and amicable resolution.
• Re-establish ground rules: After the storming-out party returns, take a moment to re-establish the ground rules and expectations for the mediation process. Remind all parties of the importance of respectful communication, active listening, and constructive problem-solving. Reinforcing these ground rules can help create a more conducive environment for productive discussions.
• Consider individual or joint sessions: Depending on the nature of the storm out and the dynamics between the parties, it may be helpful to conduct individual or joint sessions. Individual sessions allow parties to express their concerns privately, while joint sessions can provide an opportunity for direct communication and problem-solving with the mediator’s guidance.
• Adapt the process: Be flexible in adapting the mediation process to accommodate the needs and concerns of the parties involved. This may involve adjusting the agenda, incorporating additional breaks, or utilizing alternative communication methods such as caucusing or written exchanges. Adapting the process can help rebuild trust and encourage re-engagement.
Remember, we’re all human. Storming out during a divorce proceeding is a human response to an exceptionally challenging situation. By understanding the triggers, navigating the aftermath with empathy and understanding, and providing access to relevant support, we can help individuals weather these emotional storms and navigate towards calmer waters, even on the turbulent seas of divorce.
When a storm out occurs in a mediation setting, it can be a difficult challenge for the mediator. They must effectively juggle the autonomy, safety, and dignity of the parties while also maintaining the integrity and efficiency of the mediation process. This situation can also present a dilemma for professionals involved in the mediation or collaboration sessions – do they follow the person who storms out or stay with the remaining individual? There is no clear answer to this question, as it greatly depends on the context and dynamic between all parties involved.
Written by Eugene Opperman (B.Proc. LLB.) (LSSA L.E.A.D., ADR Network, FAMAC) , a legal practitioner and accredited mediator. 08 February 2024.