As mediators, we all seem pretty decent at recognizing our clients' emotional pain in mediation, whether expressed or buried. It seems an essential part of the job, regardless of whether our previous training is as a therapist, an attorney, an accountant, etc. When I worked for the courts, I taught a class for parents about the impact of conflict on kids and at some point during the class we always discussed Kubler-Ross' 5 stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance. The class was developed before my employ so my co-facilitators and I merely followed the outline we were given (there were opportunities to participate in making changes in the class, but that's another whole post) and most of my co-facilitators preferred leading other sections so I often volunteered to facilitate that one.

We taught three different cross sections of clients: pre-decree, post-decree, and never married parents and adapted the class accordingly. The pre-decree clients seemed to most benefit from this section of the class, as the end of the marriage was a particularly significant loss for them. The post-decree parents, typically very angry at the other parent, the system, and therefore at us, resisted this discussion initially. However, the majority seemed to come around to it eventually as they considered the ways in which they or the other parent were feeling and expressing anger as the predominant emotion in their lives. The majority of never-married parents looked at us like we were crazy when we talked about feelings, but once we put it in the context of their kids (have your children expressed any of these emotions?) most seemed better able to hear it and possibly even apply some of it to themselves or to the other parent. I realize I'm generalizing here, but after nearly 3 years of teaching the class with a pretty consistent experience of it each time, I feel these observations aren't too skewed.

In thinking about emotions and emotional pain, the ways in which we try to be aware of it in mediation, the energy and resources that go into better understanding the emotional impact of conflict for clients, the expression of emotional pain during the process of mediation, I began to consider a different kind of pain that I've rarely, if ever, heard discussed in the context of mediation: physical pain. As someone who has suffered from somewhat but not entirely predictable chronic pain for approximately 11 years resulting in the loss of more minutes, days, weeks than I wish to count, I can't help but wonder how physical pain -- mine or my client's -- impacts mediation.

As a sufferer of chronic pain, I've learned to adapt. I ignore it to the best of my ability when possible, or I check out from the world until it has passed. Thankfully, the somewhat predictable occurrence of this pain for me, as well as my previous athletic trained ability to "push through it," has meant infrequent cancellations of clients. I love mediation to such a great extent and can become so focused on the process that mediating itself seems to release a sort of pain killer into my system until the session has been completed. That's when I really pay for it, however, after the session or sessions have ended or even later, when I'm no longer at the office; when my time is meant to be my own again, meant for me and my family. So I often lose that time to pain, but it's mostly worth it to me because of how much I love mediating. Usually, no matter how much I may want to push through it, the pain is so severe from 1-3 days per month that I find myself at home waiting for it to be over ... until the next time.

Just last night, I realized that between each of these bouts of chronic pain--the kind that keeps me at home--I actually almost forget how bad it feels. Not only that, but each time I experience these waves of chronic pain it seems as though I actually go through a variation of those stages of grief I mentioned previously. I definitely try to ignore the pain for a while (denial), until it becomes unavoidable. I tell myself if I eat the right thing or drink the right kind of tea, the pain won't be so bad or it will go away more quickly (bargaining). I start talking about how unfair it is, how much I hate it, how it sucks (anger). Then I sleep for a while and cry (depression). Until I get to a point where I feel prepared to ride it out and/or it ends (acceptance).

Given that, I can't help but wonder what chronic pain could teach us about emotions in mediation and vice versa. When someone is in chronic emotional pain, we may call that depression. What do you call it when someone is in chronic physical pain? What if someone's unexpressed physical pain is the true cause of their anger or depression in mediation, but it is manifesting through the conflict with the other party? How many of our clients, just like us mediators (because I know for a fact I'm not alone in this experience) silently suffer from chronic pain? What, if any, impact does a client's physical pain have on their experience of, and dare I say, the potential outcome, of mediation? What, if any, impact does a mediator's physical pain have on the mediation process?

I'm breaking my silence on this issue. If others are talking about it already, maybe I'm just missing the discussion. Fill me in. Please. Or tell me your thoughts and experiences on the subject.

By Laura L. Noah
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