Sometimes in divorce negotiations, whether in mediation or collaborative sessions, one of the parties gets upset or feels unappreciated or insulted. Or they can’t believe what the other person said and feel very strong emotions, so they get up and storm out.
What Exactly is A Storm Out?
The storm out is a physical, non-verbal form of communication.
So, “Why?” Why do people storm out? We’ve all done it; it’s part of the human response. Storming out intentionally is often a way to express the deepest possible feeling that the other person has gone too far.
I stormed out of my own divorce mediation. I threw all my materials, little notebooks, and papers at him and stormed out. I intentionally left my purse behind, so it was clear I was coming back. My intention was not to end the negotiation; it was to make the point that what my ex-husband said was intolerable, and I wouldn’t stay in the room.
It could be debated that after one party storms out, they cannot go back because going back loses face. However, that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes a strong emotional statement needs to be made. Going back after making such a strong statement will often work to get the other person’s attention because the point has been made. Not only did I leave myself a safe way to go back in by leaving my purse, but I also left it so I had to; I made myself go back in.
People storm out of negotiations for several reasons. Sometimes people storm out because they’re just flooded-emotionally overwhelmed. Sometimes it is intentional, telling the other person they are prepared to leave if they have to. One thing is very clear about the storm out: it obviously indicates a high level of feeling – such a high level that it cannot be expressed in words.
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 discussing how we will work together before discussing the problem. Sometimes as part of that process, we talk about how 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. (While writing this short article, I realize I should probably always ask that question.)
If the question of what to do if someone storms out has not been answered, 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 the choice to return or not. When I work as an advocate for one party in the Collaborative Law process, I will follow up 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 communication similarly. 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 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?”
Are you facing a storm out in your divorce proceedings? Let us help.
Katherine E. Miller is a Divorce Attorney, who is also a certified mediator and a trained collaborative divorce professional. In practice for over 30 years and personally divorced, Miller is the founder of the Miller Law Group, all women’s boutique law firm with seven divorce professionals. Miller is also the Director at the Center for Understanding in Conflict, the organization that teaches mediation, collaborative law and other conflict resolution skills, and she hosts the podcast and radio show, “Divorce Dialogues.” Additionally, Miller is the former president of the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals. She is a graduate of Vassar College and Fordham University school of Law. Learn more: Miller-law.com.