As professional mediators, we are accustomed to observing and dealing with challenging and unproductive behaviors. Our training and experience provide us with the insight that helps us to discern emotionally driven behavior as opposed to behavior that is grounded in logic and reason. One of the helpful consequences of the structure and process of mediation is that the parties in conflict are typically able to self-regulate their emotions and remain civil with each other. On some occasions however, we are not so fortunate and must deal with behaviors that threaten to derail the entire mediation. When this occurs, quick and decisive action is required by the mediator to address and de-escalate the situation to maintain control in order that the mediation continue. At these times we may find our competency in this arena is not as well-developed as we would like. The good news is that there is a way to enhance our existing conflict management skills and learn to effectively manage confrontational and aggressive behaviors.
To cope with this challenge, it helps to understand why we become confrontational and aggressive in the first place. Most people who feel attacked or threatened in some way respond in a confrontational manner. It is a self-defence behavior intended to get our “opponent” to back down. It is also very much a primal response, which means our complex thinking skills are not being utilized 100% and thus our sound decision-making skills are seriously impaired.
Defensive behaviors constitute a range from mild, such as when we alter our recollection of an event to justify our part in it, through to aggression, where we try to physically, verbally, or emotionally harm someone. Confrontational behavior lies somewhere in the middle of this range.
A confrontation is essentially a disagreement between two or more people, where one or both sides are focused on imposing their needs, values and perceptions on the other, and less attentive to finding common ground. The goal is winning, at the expense of the other side who loses. When both sides are behaving confrontationally, the dispute can escalate into aggression which can occur quickly.
For most of us, being confrontational when feeling threatened is instinctive automatic. There are many causal reasons for this including not having learned to self-regulate our emotions or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol or have mental health challenges. An ongoing relationship and history with our opponent can also impact how we interact. For some, the successful use of confrontational behavior in the past, may make it tool of choice. This goal-driven behavior requires a different approach to managing than does emotionally driven behavior.
We all react emotionally first. Our rational thinking kicks in sometime afterwards. This allows us to make quick, and oftentimes incorrect assessments, we then react to protect ourselves. If emotion takes control, irrational behavior is sure to follow. The key to dealing with a confrontational person is to ensure they do not perceive you as the threat. If you realize that you are the one being confrontational, pause and consider what it is that is making you feel threatened and why. Sometimes threats are serious and demand a swift response. Most of the time however, there is sufficient time to think about your response and how you want your message to be received. The extra a second or two spent assessing what’s happening and adjusting your behavior can save a lot of trouble later.
Therefore, when you find yourself becoming confrontational it is important to ask yourself what about the person (or the situation) is making you feel threatened? Alternatively, if the person you are trying to communicate with becomes confrontational, ask yourself what might you be doing or saying that is making them feel threatened?
Given that when we feel threatened, our attention focuses on defense rather than collaboration. It becomes very hard to hear the actual message being delivered and harder still to consider the merits rationally. Hence, the overarching strategy is to present yourself and deliver your information in as non-threatening a way as possible. That means avoiding the urge to be sarcastic or condescending. Being mindful of your tone and focusing on the issue at hand rather than on personal attacks.
The approach to take will depend on the motives behind the confrontational behavior and must be specifically particularized as such. When the response is fueled by emotions such as fear and frustration, we must focus on and manage the emotions. On the other hand, when it is being used intentionally as a tool to intimidate you or the other party into concede and acquiesce to their wishes, we must deescalate the power imbalance such that there is a level playing field.
Emotionally Driven Confrontational Behavior
As outlined above, when you know that the confrontational behavior is the consequence of legitimate emotion and defensiveness, the mediator’s goal must be focused on reducing the person’s anxiety. Firstly, identify the source of the perceived threat and then develop strategies to empower the party thus minimizing the impact it has on the individual or session. Often this can be achieved through familiar strategies such as probing for interests and other questioning techniques intended to peel back the layers enough to expose the party’s underlying needs or values being threatened. Often, the individual is not even fully aware of what is happening especially since it is their subconscious that has identified a threat and is now reacting instinctively.
Simply taking a short break or caucus may also be allow them to “step away” from the situation. This forced break offers an opportunity to calm down and regain the rationality that they lost while exposed to the perceived threat. Removing the individual from the triggering source even if only temporarily, provides the mediator with an opportunity to assess the situation and identify what is specifically triggering the person as well as the viability of the mediation reconvening.
It must be remembered that as mediators that often the information provided to us is only what is visible on the tip of the iceberg and when we find out information, we must determine the viability of the mediation proceeding given the psychological state and or resources of the party. Once identified provided it is safe to proceed, steps can be taken to minimize or remove those triggers so that they no longer pose a threat. When caucusing is used, ensure that you speak with the other party, and without compromising confidentiality keep them appraised of the situation and explore new and different approaches to reengage the process without initiating the triggering. Often changing the manner or volume of speech will convey less of a threat. Whichever strategies are utilized, the goal must be to identify the cause of the perceived threat and to finding ways to minimize it. Once effectively addressed, the mediation may proceed if safe to do so.
Intentional (Goal-Driven) Confrontational Behavior
While the training that mediators receive is designed to minimize the potential of disruptions due to emotionally driven behaviors. This requires us to be alert to the possibility before someone’s behavior becomes a problem and addressing it as it occurs. It is common for people to use confrontation and aggression as tools. Their goal is to frighten or intimidate the other side into giving in to their demands or expectations. This is often a learned behavior that the individual has observed others use successfully in the past. It has also likely proven effective for them in previous disputes. It must be remembered that even though the observable behavior resembles the highly emotional person’s behavior, the motives driving it are very different.
When faced with this type of behavior, the mediator must take a firm and focused approach to addressing it. In this ensuing power struggle the role of the mediator to maintain control of the process and balance the power between the parties as opposed to trying to psychoanalyze the party to understand underlying the behavior, to do this the mediator must focus on the behavior itself.
Setting limits and holding everyone accountable for behaviors is a fundamental principal of mediation. At the beginning of the process, the mediator and parties jointly establish the “ground rules” of respectful dialogue, no profanity, no shouting, no demeaning or threatening language are common themes. At this stage, the mediator must be very intentional about including strong limits on the use of confrontational behaviors. With these expectations clear and all parties agreed to them, the mediator has recourse to refer to when calling out unacceptable behavior during the mediation.
The foundational principal of self-determination in the mediation process is every bit as applicable here since it is in the party’s responsibility to determine the outcomes and agreements. Through the lens that each party, including the mediator, is accountable for their behavior the mediator can approach and intervene on any offending behavior. When faced with a party who persists in using confrontation as a strategy the mediator must make it known that he or she is alert to the strategy and remind everyone that it is counterproductive and not acceptable by referring to the agreed upon “ground rules”.
Should the behaviors persist, the mediator may pause the mediation and caucus with the parties separately. The idea here is to break the pattern of behavior by separating everyone. This allows an opportunity to ensure the targeted party to is okay and to determine if the mediation should continue. This may necessitate reassuring parties that the offending behaviors will be addressed prior to continuing. The mediator should meet with the confrontational party to have them recommit to the process. And to determine if possible, why the behavior is reoccurring. This causes the party to revisit their approach and is often provides insight leading to change. Calling the individual out on their behavior makes the process transparent and potentially reveals the motives hidden by the veil of emotion. Remember, confrontation only works as a strategy when allowed to occur and is based its effect of frightening or intimidating the other party. By inserting themselves between the parties, the mediator can quite effectively neutralize it rendering this strategy ineffective.
To discourage the continuation of the behavior during caucus the mediator should discuss the potential benefits available by participating in a collaborative process, while also clearly outlining the consequences of the behavior continuing. For example, being polite and respectful with the other party increases the likelihood of them reaching a solution, while continuing to confront, intimidate and belittle will end the mediation leaving the issue unresolved. By indicating to how the current approach is negatively impacting the other party may incentivize them to change their approach to continue the mediation. This empowers the individual to make informed choices about what happens next. By clearly explaining the pros and cons of continuing with the undesirable behaviors they can then determine what happens next. This limit-setting strategy facilitates the maintenance of procedural control, while facilitating party’s need for self-determination. If the party chooses to continue with the confrontational behavior, the mediator may have little choice but to proceed with whatever alternative options outlined in caucus, so no bluffing!
We have little to no control over the behaviors of others, but there is much that we can do to influence them. Utilizing the strategies provided in this article facilitates effective at encouraging collaborative communication by helping the parties to manage their emotions, setting clear limits and consequences on specific behaviors. These are a few of the same strategies used by de-escalation experts in the law enforcement and mental health fields, which you can incorporate into your toolbox.
My thanks to Bruce Ally, our Director, for his corrections, modifications, and editing.
Kingsbury, S. J., Lambert, M. T., & Hendrickse, W. (1997). A two-factor model of aggression. Psychiatry, 60(3), 224-32. Retrieved from link
Nadler, R. (2009). What was I thinking? Handling the hijack. Retrieved November 1, 2016, from link
Price, O., & Baker, J. (2012). Key components of de-escalation techniques: A thematic synthesis. International Journal Of Mental Health Nursing, 21(4), 310-319. doi:10.1111/j.1447-0349.2011.00793.x
Special thanks to JAMS and Editor Richard Birke for their gracious permission to reprint this article which was originally published in JAMS Dispute Resolution ALERT, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2009.Of...By Jay Folberg