The Storm Out: What to Do When It Happens.

{2:00 minutes to read} In my previous article, I wrote about the dynamics of what happens when a person storms out of a mediation or any conversation between people in conflict. I wrote about what it might mean, when it happens and that the act of storming out is a communication. People storm out because they are either flooded and can’t take it anymore, or to indicate that the other person has gone too far.

For professionals working with people to help resolve conflict, the storm out brings up a question: When someone storms out, should the professional follow them, or not?
When I start working with people in conflict during mediation or Collaborative Law we usually start by talking about how we will work together before we talk about what the problem is. Sometimes as part of that process, we talk about the ways they have historically dealt with conflict in their relationship. If walking away is part of that pattern, I may ask them how we should handle it if that happens in our sessions together. (Actually, while writing this short article, I realize that I should probably always ask that question.)

If the question of what to do if someone storms out has not been answered then it poses a real conundrum for the professional. If you follow, you risk leaving the remaining person utterly abandoned. If you stay, the conflict resolution process might be over. I have a different answer for myself depending on my role. When I work as a neutral, I tend not to follow. I think of my office as a container for the discussion. If someone chooses to leave that container, I respect that choice and I also respect the choice to return or not. When I work as an advocate for one party in the Collaborative Law process, I will follow if my client leaves the room and ask her if she would like to talk to me about what happened.

Sometimes people use the threat of a storm out as a communication in much the same way. I had a mediation once in which one of the parties sat on the edge of her chair, during the entire mediation, with her car keys in hand. Her message to me and to the other person was, “I have very little tolerance for this and I’m at the edge of my ability to hear you.”

I think it’s always a good idea to make an observation that the person is sitting there, holding their keys in their hand. Rather than ignoring it, address it and point out that their communication has been heard. The tone of this is very important in order to convey the message in a non-judgmental way, as an inquiry: “What’s going on for you that you’re holding your keys in your hand?”

What is your policy when it comes to client storm outs? I’d love to hear your reasons for following, or not following.

Katherine Miller



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