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Are you leaving these conflict resolvers and problem solvers out of your toolkit? If so, why?

Two tools that facilitate creativity and effective problem solving are not allowed in the structure and timing of many conflict resolution sessions. Perhaps another reason why expediency and pressure cut against the best resolutions?

The first tool: Take a well-researched step that leads to insight, that Eureka moment when new solutions seem to appear out of nowhere. Jonah Lehrer writes in his article “The Eureka Hunt” [pdf] (New Yorker) that research from neuroscience indicates that to solve a problem with insight, you first need to focus on the problem—and then go do something else.

The insight process, as sketched by [Mark] Jung-Beeman and [John] Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.

The role of focus in problem-solving may be overrated.

While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs.

Many stimulants, like caffeine, Adderall, and Ritalin, are taken to increase focus—one recent poll found that nearly twenty per cent of scientists and researchers regularly took prescription drugs to “enhance concentration”—but, according to Jung-Beeman and Kounios, drugs may actually make insights less likely, by sharpening the spotlight of attention and discouraging mental rambles. Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity.

Insight-friendly activities suggested are going for a walk or doing anything that will induce relaxation. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had his own method.

[He] preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

The second tool: Sleep. From “Sleep on It: How Snoozing Makes You Smarter” (Scientific American):

As we snooze, our brain is busily processing the information we have learned during the day.

Sleep makes memories stronger, and it even appears to weed out irrelevant details and background information so that only the important pieces remain.

Our brain also works during slumber to find hidden relations among memories and to solve problems we were working on while awake.

Walk. Snooze. Relax. Defocus. We know a lot about how to help the brain creatively solve problems. Are many mediators and negotiators paying attention to this wisdom? And while we are looking at what is often ignored that could facilitate mediations and negotiations, how about music? Its effect on the brain in ways that would smooth conflict is well-known. Are your mediations brain-based?

Note: I read an article this morning about daydreaming, one of the methods that can promote that Eureka moment. I see that Diane Levin has already blogged on “Daydream achiever” (Boston Globe); it is not surprising that the article on insight described above and this one on daydreaming were both written by Jonah Lehrer. (An interview of Lehrer.)


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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