How to separate the problem from the emotions

When going through a separation or divorce, it can be hard to think logically and make important decisions as we are often so caught up in our emotions.

All of us are full of emotions and deeply held values and have different backgrounds and viewpoints. These tend to get entangled in any problem that we are trying to solve in mediation and make reaching agreement much harder than it needs to be.

For example, suppose I asked my clients to support a complete stranger to work out their future housing options on divorce. I gave my clients the stranger’s income, capital and their needs regarding housing. Most clients would be able to come up with a couple of options that might work and be able to think through the pros and cons of each option. But if I ask those same clients to apply the same practical thinking to their own circumstances, it becomes a whole lot harder. This is because their emotions get in the way of practical problem solving.

When our emotions get involved, we can easily draw inferences from comments the other person makes and we can then misinterpret these comments. Because the other person is probably also doing the same, this can escalate into blame, conflict and stalemate.

For example, one person might say: ‘Perhaps you could move further out of town to an area where housing is cheaper?’ And the other might respond: ‘Just because you want to move in with your new partner, I am not moving to the rough end of town. Don’t you care where our children live and whether they can still stay at the same school and see their friends?’ As this example clearly shows, the emotions have become entangled with the problem. Fear and anger naturally make us blame the other person, who we feel has caused the current circumstances, and this gets tied up with our approach to the problem. Very understandable, we all do it. Not so helpful if you are trying to look for practical solutions.

In the above example, if the problem solvers are not emotionally attached to the problem, they might consider one person moving with the children to a cheaper end of town and work out whether that might be a good solution to the problem. They would consider the pros and cons calmly, unemotionally and objectively in order to work out if it might be a possible solution.

There’s a well known and brilliant book on negotiation called ‘Getting to Yes’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury. The chapter called ‘Separate the people from the problem’, offers hints and tips.

Fisher and Ury use an analogy of two adversarial shipwrecked sailors in a lifeboat. They have arrived there angry at each other and seeing each other as a hindrance and adversary. However, to survive, these two need to put aside their emotions and work together to solve a mutual problem. Fisher and Ury say: “Seeing themselves as engaged in side-by-side efforts to solve a mutual problem, the sailors will become better able to reconcile their conflicting interests as well as to advance their shared interests. Similarly with two negotiators. However difficult personal relations may be between us, you and I become better able to reach an amicable reconciliation of our various interests when we accept that task as a shared problem and face it jointly.”

Of course, it is not possible to keep our emotions completely out of the negotiations. We are living, breathing humans after all. The key is being aware of when our emotions are getting in the way. A mediator can help us to do this because they are not emotionally involved and therefore they are more able to calmly look at the problem and encourage us to do so too.

For more ideas on preparing for mediation, check out our other blog post on preparing for mediation - 'Choosing your mindset'.


If you think mediation might be helpful to you, please contact me at or call on 07706 513496.