Take it from a mediator: When someone is angry and loud, trying to control them is not only an exercise in futility, but can also have an unintended consequence — it can escalate them. Here’s one powerful alternative.
The bailiff unlocked the small courtroom. After telling me to make myself at home, he pointed to a small red button on the wall. “If you need me, just press that button and I’ll be in here faster than you can blink an eye. It’s an emergency button.”
“Ok, thanks,” I replied, and began to unpack my briefcase.
“I mean it,” he said. “Just press the button. Maybe you should set up your chair so you’re near it.”
I gave him a long look. “You seem to want me to know about that button. Is there something else you want to tell me?”
I was about to mediate a messy estate dispute between family members who’d been winding their way through the legal system for a couple years. As a probate mediator for the State of New Hampshire, I had no prior contact with my parties, something that’s quite different than when I mediate in the workplace. All I typically knew about a situation was the general nature of the dispute and how many people were involved. Sometimes I received materials from the attorneys involved, sometimes not.
The bailiff crossed his arms and set a wide stance with his legs. “Well, one of the fellows has been a big problem in the courtroom. Cursing at the judge, really belligerent and disrespectful. Out of control. You’re going to have your hands full because his lawyers can’t manage him either.” He gestured toward the button again and left me alone.
About an hour into the mediation, there was a knock on the door and the bailiff leaned his head into the room. “Everything ok in here?” he asked. I nodded and he left. Another hour and he checked again.
“We’re all fine,” I told him. “Thanks, but you don’t need to check in.” And please don’t, I thought to myself. He didn’t.
As I packed up my briefcase a few hours later, after the parties had signed their agreement and left, the bailiff wandered in. “It was awfully quiet in here,” he commented. “I kept waiting for that fellow to start his hollering. Worried me when I didn’t hear any disturbance, so that’s why I checked on you. How’d you get him under control?”
I almost laughed. He’d checked in on me because it was so normal and quiet in the room he imagined something had happened to me! It was very kind of him, really.
“By not even trying,” I said. “He didn’t need anyone to control him, he needed someone to really listen and try to understand him. When he got that, he didn’t need to yell anymore.”
This post was originally published in 2008 and updated in 2016.