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Handling Anger in the Mediation Process

Is Everyone At The Table, 18 Life lessons in Problem-Solving

Ernest G. Tannis is a mediation lawyer over 30 years experience in the field. He brings his wealth of hands-on experience to the most difficult and intractable community conflicts. His book Is Everyone at the Table demonstrates how we too can begin to tap our own intuitive expertise.  It offers wise and entertaining insights into the impulses that – with goodwill and skill – can turn around apparently hopeless conflict situations.
The book is a collection of 18 lively, real-life stories that are based on actual interventions. Ernie Tannis illustrates the importance of values, perseverance, trust, humour and other principles in dealing with everyday disagreements and disputes.

Is Everyone at the Table: 18 Life Lessons in Problem Solving Ernest G. Tannis (Canada: ADR Centre, (Canada) Inc., 2010) may be purchased through Lulu publishers.

Ernest Tannis has kindly given us permission to reproduce this chapter (chapter 13) from his book here, so that we can begin to sense the intensely human place from which he conjures transformations of group process. The turning point comes when as facilitator of a large and angry group, he says: 
         “For me the question is, what do I do with my anger now that it’s been revealed? 
           When you go home … what will you do with your anger?”


In 1993 there was a violent six-month strike in the U.S. involving the largest coal company in the world and its unionized workers. I was told that it was the first time in U.S. mining history that supervisors had crossed the picket lines to keep the mine operating. Naturally, the union members felt betrayed and, as tensions and hostilities rose, at least two supervisors’ homes were burned to the ground.
Mining is an industry based on trust between the workers, with miners working deep underground in extremely close quarters and looking out for each based on trust between other in dangerous working conditions. These miners and supervisors lived in the same towns, their children went to the same schools, and their families attended the same churches. Imagine the betrayal the ordinary workers on strike must have felt as they watched their neighbours and mining brethren in management cross the picket lines every day.

Mining is an industry based on trust between the workers.

My colleague Tom Colosi, then vice president of national affairs with the American Arbitration Association, was hired by the mining company to conduct a post-strike conflict resolution exercise, which was the first time this type of intervention had been used anywhere in North America.
When Tom called me from his office in Washington, D.C., he said he was seeking the 10 best people he knew in ADR who were up to the challenge of this assignment. I was the only Canadian invited to join the group. Tom said he needed to know right away whether I was willing to participate if this exercise went ahead. Within a few days union members would vote on a new collective agreement, and Tom planned to assemble the conflict-resolution team on the night of the vote. If the new collective agreement passed, we would start our work the next day; if it did not, we would go home and all expenses would be covered. I told him I’d get back to him quickly.

It was a couple weeks before Christmas, and my stepdaughter had recently arrived at our house with her husband and two boys. Her husband had lost his job, as had many in his industry in that part of Canada, and the family needed a place to stay until he found work. Although there was already animosity between Mary and her son-in-law, I had taken a liking to him over the years and had spent time helping him work through the pain of his childhood issues and addictions.

Under these circumstances I was concerned about being away from home for the 10 days this assignment was expected to last, although I didn’t tell Tom about the situation. However, my wife encouraged me to go; she knew Tom and his wife Susan, and believed this was an opportunity to further my commitment and growing expertise in the ADR field.

I agreed to go and thanked Tom for the great privilege of working with him. However, I was in turmoil over the trip; first, because of the situation at home, and second, because I wondered if I was up to this enormous task. I didn’t want to disappoint Tom or the other team members whom I had not yet met.
On the night the vote was to occur I flew into a city in Kentucky, harbouring a secret desire for the union to vote against the collective agreement! When the team met, Tom outlined the strategy, explaining that if by midnight the vote was successful we would start the next day. Each of us would then facilitate a dialogue with two groups, each including about 100 men. At midnight word came that the collective agreement had been accepted by the union membership, so this amazing undertaking was to commence the next morning.

I phoned home to let Mary know, and to find out what was going on at home. She told me she felt threatened by her son-in-law, which instantly aroused my anger. I was frustrated that I was so far away from home helping others when my family clearly needed me. She advised me to focus on what I was doing, and if anything happened she’d call me immediately. There was no way to know how long this assignment would actually last; we just had to take it one day at a time. I went to bed searching for inner peace, trusting that all was meant to be and that I was where I was supposed to be.

The next morning we headed to meet with management. Before the meeting started I noticed the president of the company, and I approached him to express my gratitude that top management was willing to hold such an innovative conflict resolution intervention for the wellbeing of the employees. I asked him what had prompted him to consider such a process, and he shared a personal story about how his daughter had run away from home when she was a teenager, and how he and his wife had prayed for her safe return. It took three years, but eventually she came home, went to university, became a professional and started her own family. I was deeply touched, both by the story and by the fact that he would share it with me. I couldn’t help thinking about my own family in disarray at the time. He said he understood there was pain and anger among the miners, and he wanted to do something to help them heal. There’s much more to mining than just running a business, he said; it was about caring for people.

A man pointed at me and shouted, “What do you know about anger?”

The meeting was called to order and Tom explained how the program would be conducted. One by one, each team member stood and Tom introduced us to the group. When I stood up, Tom said, “That’s Ernie. You will come to see his humanity.” His words surprised me but also anchored me in the moment, which was just what I needed.

When it was time to divide into groups, the eight team members were shuffled into large break out rooms and the men filed in. I stood at the front facing about 100 men, and behind me were a blackboard and flip chart. The room was dead silent and I could see the anger on their faces. I had an unsettling feeling that this was not going to work out well. I caught myself, realizing I needed to forget my own troubles and just do my job.
I extended greetings. No response.

I explained I was there to listen and allow them to vent about what had happened during the strike. I told them it was important to explore their feelings before everyone went back into the mines, and I asked if anyone would like to start.

Again, no response. In fact, it was totally quiet, like the calm before the storm. It seemed I stood there for a long time without hearing any sound. I wondered if I would be embarrassed if nothing came out of this session.

“I realize that many of you must be angry,” I said, deciding to venture a bit further. “Would you like to express the feelings behind that anger?” I had learned from a great Mohawk social worker that an important element of anger management is getting to the feelings that can cause anger. It can be a painful journey but it’s necessary.

All of a sudden, a man sitting in the front row pounded the desk with his fist, pointed accusingly at me and shouted, “What do you know about anger?”

I was absolutely startled and thrown totally off guard. In an instant, all my frustration over the troubled situation at home boiled over and I forgot where I was. Before I knew it I was yelling back at him. “You want to know what I know about anger? Well, I’ll tell you exactly what I know about anger!”
I ranted on, describing in great detail the problems at home and how our son-in-law was threatening and intimidating his mother. “So what the hell am I doing here when I should be at my own home dealing with my own problems? I’ll tell you what I know about anger. I’d like to take every book on ADR and conflict resolution ever published, including my own book, set them on fire and throw that sonofabitch in just long enough so he can feel the burn. That would smarten him up. That’s what I know about anger!”  

I remember the relief I felt when I finished, yet I realized how totally out of touch I was with my surroundings. The next instant, the room erupted into applause, whooping and laughter, and the men pounded on the desks with approval. As I gradually regained my composure I saw that the men no longer looked angry but were clearly wondering what to do next. In mediation terms this is often called the “dark moment” of the mediation, when even the mediator is unsure what the next step will be. I searched for some way to bring light to the moment.

“Thank you, men, for listening to my anger,” I said. “Thank you for letting me safely vent my feelings, my hurts and pains. I truly am grateful, and I can now focus on what I’m here for. For me the question is, what do I do with my anger now that it’s been revealed? When you go home and go underground into the mine, what will you do with your anger?”

The room was quiet, but this time the atmosphere was solemn rather than sad. An idea came to me.
“Does anyone have a paper clip?” I asked. I’m sure they were wondering why on earth I would want a paper clip at a moment like this, but one was found among the group and passed to me. I held it up.
“See this paper clip?” I said. “What can you do with it?”
There were chuckles, and someone answered, “You can clip papers together.”
“And what else?” I urged. “Think about it. Use your imagination. What else can you do with a paper clip?”

After a few moments, someone called out, “You could clip your tie to your shirt.” That was all it took to start a flood of ideas. The men were shouting out so many suggestions that I struggled to record them all on the flip chart and blackboard. When the group quieted down I counted 40 things on our list.  “C’mon,” I urged. “C’mon, let’s get to 50.”

The men were now very energized, and they played the best paper clip game I had ever seen, working together as a group to list 50 different things you can do with a paper clip. Some of the suggestions were very funny and there were plenty of jokes flying. The final idea, “You can pick your nose with it,” drew roars of laughter.

When we were finished I stood back and read out the list. “A paper clip appears to have only one function,” I said to the group, “but when you thought about it you identified at least 50 uses, and there may be more. So now the question is, what can you do with your anger―other than the usual things that come to mind, which are mostly violent? I want you to use your imagination again, and let’s talk about other things we can do with anger.”

For two hours we had a fantastic dialogue and I wrote pages and pages of flip chart notes. To end the session I told them about the evening I spent talking with my wife’s son-in-law about his life challenges, trying to help him see things differently. I asked him several questions, including whether he could see under his nose. Of course the answer to that question is no. I explained that we were created so that we can’t see under our own noses, although we can see all around us and even inside ourselves. So we need others to tell us what’s under our own noses―not as criticisms but as observations to help us see what’s going on. He said it was the most profound conversation he’d ever had. I told the group that this conflict resolution intervention was sort of like that, since it would provide feedback to the mine owners about what was happening in the mines.

In the absolute blackness of the mine I realized how daring these men were.

The team assembled that night to compare notes. The miners would be back at work the following day and we were scheduled to meet with them first thing in the morning. The team members were asked if we’d be willing to go down into the mines to talk to the workers, and three of us agreed to go. I felt that to hear the miners’ side of the story I needed to go where they worked every day.

The three of us were picked up at 3 a.m. (my favourite time of day) so we’d be there for the start of the morning shift. We first rode the elevator down a few storeys, and then rode in a buggy for about 45 minutes to the face of the mine. I’ll never forget when the supervisor stopped the buggy, turned off the lights for a moment, and explained that we were in the darkest place on earth. In the absolute blackness of the mine I realized how daring these men were, and how they must have to trust each other―all the more reason for this incredible post-strike conflict resolution process.

When the miners took a break around 7 a.m. the supervisors introduced me, and I asked the men if they would share their thoughts and feelings with me. I had no paper or pen, yet I was confident that I could remember what I heard. I wanted to spend time with them and hear what they were thinking, just as I had done above ground with the supervisors and management. They very much respected that I had come to see them deep underground.
After a while the supervisor who had brought me to the mine said he was leaving, and added that I had to go too since I could not be left without supervision, but I said I had not spent enough time with the workers to know their concerns. A tall African-American miner intervened and said, “Don’t worry about Ernie. Us union guys will take care of him.”

I sat near the face of the mine and each miner took a turn to talk with me briefly. The miners brought me chewing tobacco and told me it helped ease mouth dryness in the mine. There were different types of chewing tobacco for different parts of the mouth, they said, and advised me to try every type just to be sure that my mouth didn’t dry out. It was only when I became dizzy from all the tobacco that they finally admitted they had been joking with me; it wasn’t true that there were different tobaccos for different parts of the mouth! Once again I had experienced humour in the most bizarre of places. I’d learned if you are teased you are liked, so I felt well loved. When I got back to the hotel room I wrote up all that I remembered the miners had told me and sent it to Tom, who added it to the team feedback.

On Thursday night the team assembled again and we were told that on Friday evening we’d be flown home for the weekend. I was anxious to return home, but since Ottawa was much too far away for a weekend trip I suggested to Tom that I leave on Friday and not return. He told me it was too early to end my involvement, and asked me to stay onsite through the weekend just in case there were issues. When I said I didn’t want to be away from my wife that long, the company very generously arranged to fly her to Kentucky for the weekend.

The next day a new crisis arose over the question of when paid time began. Remember the elevator ride down, followed by the 45-minute drive to the front of the mine? The union took the position that paid time began before the elevator ride, once the miners were dressed and entering the elevator. The company took the position that paid time began after the buggy ride, once the miners had arrived at the front of the mine. With all the mine locations across the U.S., all the miners, and all the shifts, this was a major issue with big money at stake. I wondered how the collective agreement could not be clear on this point, but when I read the wording I saw it was open to interpretation. A wildcat strike was rumoured if this issue was not solved.

The mine manager and union rep at the mine asked my opinion, and I suggested that this was a matter for the company and union to figure out. Just for fun, however, I suggested a role play. The mine manager would pretend he was president of the union, the union rep would pretend he was president of the company, and I would be the mediator. They both joked that they couldn’t possibly switch roles and think that way, but at my urging they did so. Lo and behold, during their role play they came up with an idea to solve the paid time issue. I passed their suggestion to Tom, and he in turn passed it along to the company and union. Everyone accepted the idea these two gentlemen had come up with. It was further affirmation of the value of these processes, and a tribute to those two men to be able to think it through that way.

The weekend was a very enjoyable respite and I was pleased that Mary was able to get away from the tension at home. The next week we met with all levels of the company and union, including the labour relations department, a full-time staff that dealt with grievances under the collective agreement all across the country. With their comprehensive filing and computer system they tracked every clause in the collective agreement, how each grievance was arbitrated, and which arbitrators made what kind of decision. One of them joked that if this conflict resolution stuff caught on they’d have far less work to do. This indeed is a universal truth about how non-adversarial options often challenge bureaucracies. I couldn’t help but notice the difference between the swank offices of the labour relations department and the dark, dangerous environment in which the miners worked.

One very fascinating aspect of the new collective agreement was a conflict resolution committee, funded by the company, which would include both union and management. The committee would meet regularly to proactively deal with issues as they arose, thereby avoiding last-minute negotiations at the end of the collective agreement, avoiding strikes, reducing grievance arbitrations and moving towards grievance mediation.

That night we learned that both the company and the union were very satisfied with the results and we’d be going home the next day, earlier than expected. I discovered, however, that to change my flight I would have to make many more connections to get back to Ottawa, and I wondered aloud if I should wait until I could get a flight with fewer connections. One of the team members told me, “Ernie, just go. Go forward, from one airport to another until you get home. Don’t wait for that one best flight.”

What great advice that was; it was like a teach piece on problem solving. In football we’re wowed by the quarterback who throws a Hail Mary pass rather than marching down the field, play by play. In baseball we cheer more loudly for home runs than for singles and doubles. Similarly, in problem solving we often look for the big solution, but just as much progress can be made by taking it one step at a time. It was a great principle with which to end this trip.

When I got home I had a good chat with the son-inlaw, and told him how I’d reacted to the men in that room because of my frustration and anger. He said he respected me for being so honest about my feelings, while still caring for him at the same time.


  • It’s important to remember that personal matters are at stake in every dispute, even though they may not be obvious. Tom told me a story about an engineer who went to visit the contractor building a bridge. Throughout the conversation the engineer kept insisting that they learn about each other’s lives, while the contractor simply wanted to discuss how they would build the bridge. In frustration, the contractor finally asked the engineer why he was dwelling on personal matters. The engineer said he knew the contractor had lots of technical expertise in building bridges, but without a bridge of communications between them they would have a much harder time solving any problems that arose. I’ve learned that if you get to know someone personally and learn their story, you’re less likely to be angry at that person in a disagreement. Personalities affect outcomes as much as issues, so it’s important to take the time to learn about the people around you.
  • Even with large institutions, it’s important to advance the potential of ADR in our society. In 1996 the OC Transpo public transit system in Ottawa endured a stressful 24-day strike. At the urging of my colleagues I wrote to the union and company leaders about this successful conflict resolution exercise that the coal company had conducted for miners after its strike. The response I received was that there was no need for that kind of approach. Three years later, in 1999, an OC Transpo employee went on a rampage at the head office, killing four people and then himself. During the public inquiry, Dave Brown of the Ottawa Citizen wrote a column on the value of conflict resolution processes, which I worked on with him behind the scenes.
  • When a conflict situation is settled, that’s the best time to build in conflict prevention measures for the future, just to be sure that unresolved anger or festering bad feelings don’t manifest themselves later. It seems that almost every week we hear another story of incomprehensible violence that has flared up in workplace and family, when many of those tragedies could have been avoided with problem-solving techniques and processes. It’s like a steam pipe with safety valves; if the safety valves don’t have regular maintenance checks the pressure can build until the pipe explodes. Even if all seems quiet it’s usually better to address issues upfront and ensure they don’t linger. You don’t want to realize too late that the quiet was simply the calm before the storm.
  • This was the largest mining company in the world but the president of the company told me that for him it all came down to looking after individuals. In history, we tend to focus on the big issues, but often the most revealing stories are those of individual leaders on the world stage. Friedrich Hegel once said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history,” but I believe that only by knowing something about the individual leaders and their pathologies can we truly understand those historical events and their underlying causes. As Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” One major lesson from this story is one I learned at the outset of my ADR journey: remember to humanize both the knowledge and the issues.

Is Everyone at the Table: 18 Life Lessons in Problem Solving Ernest G. Tannis (Canada: ADR Centre, (Canada) Inc., 2010) may be purchased through Lulu publishers. 

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