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Published: December 2023
Written by: Damary V. Stokes

A divorce can be a stress-induced, chaotic time in people’s lives.  Selling one’s home, splitting holidays with the children, and dealing with the reality of a one-income household can all bring on high emotions.  In most cases, the problem isn’t that high-conflict people are bad people or bad parents; they just have more limited coping skills and need help reframing their perspectives in order to work cooperatively for the good of the family. As a mediator, being empathetic can be one of your “superpowers” in situations where both parties are high on emotions.   Empathy absorbs tension. 

A structured mediation process with appropriate support can make all the difference.  So, how do you define a high-conflict case? Some will say that all divorce cases are high conflict.  In my experience, however, it usually involves two people with deeply embedded hostility, whose modality of dealing with stress is attack.   As a mediator, being able to DISARM the hostility in the room allows parties to have a clear mind in order to make the best decisions for their family.  In law school, one of my studying tools was using acronyms to help me remember rules of law.  Using the acronym DISARM can help mediators disarm the hostility in the room, in turn facilitating open communication in a  productive and peaceful manner. 

The “D” stands for Defuse the Situation.  In order to defuse the situation, we need to address the conflict as soon as you see it.  Don’t wait and think it will smooth over.  Address it head on so the parties can address it and focus on the more important things.  Asking parties what they don’t like about the situation and what they would like to see done differently can be an effective way to communicate because it engages the problem-solving side of the person’s brain, which can break their pattern of attacking the other side or otherwise create drama. 

The “I” stands for Ignore the Words. I know, it seems to be counterintuitive to what we know.  As mediators, we are required to be active listeners.  I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be, but ignoring the words to identify the emotion that the party is showing and expressing that emotion can be an effective way to de-escalate a hostile angry person quickly and effectively.[1]  It’s a different way of listening and responding that turns out to be a powerful tool. 

 The “S” stands for Say the EmotionOnce you have listened for the emotion, state the emotion in a short declarative “You” statement. 

The “A” stands for Acceptance.  Helping parties picture the new reality of their new normal can help people accept that they may have to downgrade in size of home or won’t see the children on an important holiday every year.  As a litigator, I would always compare a divorce as a death to my clients when they became emotional.  So much is lost in a divorce, not just money, but time with the children, loss of relationships with relatives from your spouse, etc. 

The “R” stands for Reframing.  Reframing can be used for many things when managing conflict. For example: defusing inflammatory language, refocusing attention, acknowledging strong emotions in a productive manner, and translating communication so that it is more likely to be heard and acknowledged by other parties.


 The “M” stands for Manage.   Managing the expectations of the parties can help the parties keep an open mind on different alternatives and new ideas to help resolve their issues.    Caucuses is a great place to do so.  Caucuses create a safe environment for a “reality test” of the positions of each party.  In other words, the caucus is a good time for a mediator to help each client identify the strengths and weaknesses of their case. Exploring these concerns in the privacy of the caucus can encourage a party to modify expectations and demands, a vital step if there is to be a voluntary agreement.

Damary V. Stokes has been a member of the Florida bar for over 15 years and was previously appointed as a General Magistrate for the 15th Judicial Circuit.  She is currently a fulltime mediator with Matrix Mediation and an adjunct professor at her alma matter law school, Nova Southeastern Shepard Broad Law Center.  Damary can be reached at 561-247-0489 or via email at or

[1] De-escalate: How to Calman Angry Person in 90 seconds or less, written by Douglas E. Noll