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Overcoming Anger and Resentment with Storytelling

July 23, 2016

We are all human beings and we all react strongly with negative emotions from time to time in response to certain triggers:

Because of something that someone said or did, or didn’t say or do, we might feel as if we have been “taken advantage of,” or disrespected or insulted in one way or another. And we “go ballistic,” feeling anger and resentment and more. That is the human experience.

I hear of these experiences frequently in the mediations I conduct; they seem to underlie most conflicts.

Often I use storytelling to deal with these strong emotions.

I believe that the stories I tell have a message and allow the person in distress to connect with the commonality of our human experiences and our emotional responses to them.

I also believe that if the emotional content of the conflict can be so managed with these stories, the person in distress may rise above the emotion to reflect on the situation causing it and perhaps find a way to deal with it.

Is this the Hill to Die For?” is one of my favorite stories for mediation. Let me tell it to you.

In this story, I am a very idealistic young litigator. I am very angry and upset. I have received annoyingly evasive answers to certain questions that I have thoughtfully and carefully asked the opposing parties. “How could they do this? Don’t they know their responsibility to answer completely and truthfully?,” I ask myself and others.  I am aware that the remedy is to file a motion with the court for an order compelling further answers but it is so expensive. I am consulting with the client now because the client must agree to pay for it up front with only the hope of reimbursement from the other side later if we win the motion. The client is a much older, wiser US Marine veteran with real world experience. He listens carefully to what I have to say and evaluates the cost vs. the potential benefit. Finally, he leans forward across the conference table from me and asks:

“Really David, is this the hill to die for?”

It is a question I have never forgotten and I use it all the time in mediation.

In a recent mediation, a service provider was suing for his significant fees which his client had not paid. The service provider was angry, insulted, and resentful, as he felt he should have been paid, that he gave good value and reasonable pricing for the work he did, and that the client was taking unfair advantage of him through the litigation to force him to accept less. (The client of course similarly thought she was being “taken advantage of” because she thought the billing was excessive in the first place and now she was in expensive litigation because of it.)

In a private caucus with the service provider, and so that he would understand that his situation was not unique and that he was not alone in his feelings of resentment and so forth under the circumstances, I shared with him that all of us legal professionals in the room had faced similar situations and emotions at one time or another

… even me as mediator, as when I had settled a case and did not get paid the remaining balance by one side or the other, or when a lawyer belatedly cancelled an upcoming mediation and refused to pay the agreed cancellation fee for the reserved time.

“Of course, as you do,” I said to the service provider (paraphrasing), “I felt angry, disrespected and ‘taken advantage of.’ We all do in similar situations. It is the human side of being in business, but fortunately it does not happen all that often.”

(Sharing personal reactions of my own, I believe, gives the other person permission to recognize and share his own emotions as well.)

Then I told him my story about the US Marine, and asked him directly afterwards:

“Really, Joe [not his real name], is this the hill to die for?”

He saw what I was getting at, reflected on moving forward beyond his emotion and, to his credit, applied business sense to reach a resolution he could live with, without the additional financial and emotional cost of not doing so.

Of course, he was not happy but he was sensible and ultimately satisfied nevertheless once he got past the emotion and made the best deal he could.

Recently, I had a personal experience in which I felt insulted and that I was “being taken advantage of.” I felt all of the associated emotions including anger, disappointment, resentment, and so forth.

It took all of my training and experience in dealing with others’ emotions to recognize and then manage my own, but I have finally come to terms with the situation by recalling my US Marine story and asking myself,

“Really David, is this the hill to die for?”

It is not.

And so, with the benefit of my own storytelling I have let go of the negativity I have felt and have moved past the difficulty.

Endnote: About four months ago, I received from my health care provider a book about taking care of oneself after a heart attack. There is a section on it about managing stress. It suggests that one way to deal with stress is to write about it. And so I have written, and so too this is how I know that the recent personal experience is not the hill to die for.

***

David I. Karp is a full time mediator of real estate and business disputes in Southern California who believes in storytelling, listens to his own, and tries to manage stress for his health. His business website is at http://karpmediation.com .

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