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Conflict Begins in the Brain, Driven by Emotions

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

—William Shakespeare (from The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark written between 1599 – 1602)

Time is short, and a decision must be made now. Our heart says one thing, but our head is leaning the other way. We like to believe there is some separation of the subjective emotional heart from the objective, thinking head. But in reality, our brain unconsciously and seamlessly blends what is in our thinking head with what is in our emotional heart. Our emotions are not only coloring the options available, influencing our thinking, but also are essential for making the decision.

Our human emotions are natural body functions needed to survive in the world. Emotions work like a system doing a variety of functions across multiple layers of our body. Our emotions are constructed in the moment by core body functions, assisted by a lifetime of experience to engage in survival-oriented actions. We see the external surface as emotions expressed supported by what is underneath.  These 

emotions observed by another person involve muscle movements used for facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, and hand gestures.  When observed by another person these movements are referred to as affect.

Our emotions mostly operate automatically and unconsciously as an integrated whole built layer upon layer across bodily functions.  The underneath layers of our body work using smaller than microscopic pathways to create the emotions we experience.  So biologically speaking, frequently we unconsciously sense the effects from emotions first.  This factual complexity can be summarized with the simple phase, “We have emotional brains that think.”

As a result, the natural biological functioning of emotions give meaning in the moment influencing attention, long-term memory, muscle movements, and decision-making.  The biology includes unconscious hidden bias needed for making decisions. It biases us toward one option and against another, helping to make the choices needed to navigate in the world.  Any effective strategies intended to reduce the impact of implicit bias needs to consider the biological functioning of emotions.

Today we live upon the mountains of accomplishments and follow the pathways forged by our ancestors. The leaders of our ancestors’ clans supported the discoveries of their day. After all, those discoveries made group survival easier. Pathways shaped by trial and error slowly formed into more orderly efforts. As the work of discovery became better organized, the scientific method started to emerge. The scientific method was developed over the centuries to reduce the subjective features and increase the objective elements to reveal the realities of how the world works.

However, the results of these efforts have not always been what others wanted to hear. For example, just consider what Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) faced in reporting his findings of how Earth orbits the Sun while rotating daily.  Thomas Willis (1621–1675) pioneered research on the human brain, starting the era of modern neuroanatomy and, in the process, helped to improve upon the scientific method.  Reporting the facts on the reality of physical elements to a skeptical audience is no easier today.

In order to better manage our emotions, we do need to know what they are. Over 350 years of scientific research has clearly demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that:

(1) all mental functions come from the brain, and

(2) emotions are a core element needed in decision making.  

Thus, all conflict starts and ends in the brain, driven by emotions.  If one has knowledge of the universal biology of human emotions, when the conflict slips into dispute, we will have some additional useful tools to support the efforts required in the moment. This knowledge will also help us improve the important life skill of self-control.

In basic mediation training, we learn how the decision makers are the parties in dispute.  Our job as mediators is to help the parties reach a voluntary uncoerced agreement.  Working the process to uncover the core interests, issues, positions of those involved, we will find a blend of negative and positive emotions driving the dispute. 

In addition, this knowledge will help us manage the emotional climate in the room.    This refers to our unconscious reading of the muscle movements of others in the room like facial expressions, tone of voice, and hand gestures offering cues to their current emotions.  This is not reading what a person is thinking or their intention.  These unconscious emotional cues can spread such as when we get caught up with the crowd’s excitement in the moment with everyone feeling happy about what is happening, or sharing in the sadness.  This muscle movement reading capacity helps us to connect to the emotional spirit of others.  We can then use this information to help facilitate the discussions and reach agreements.

Disputes driven by emotions based on our universal, yet unique, brains are just part of living. As people doing the job of mediation, we need to be neutral, objective, rational and impartial in providing these services.   What science has learned over the years about our human emotions is only useful if we take the time to apply this knowledge.  The science is the biology of emotions. The action is understanding how emotions influence our choices, attention, thinking, behaviors and more. With this understanding, we can better navigate these foreseeable challenges improving our ability to solve problems, resolve conflicts, and have better relationships. After all, our emotional brain is where all conflicts begin and end.

This article is adapted from The Emotional Side of Conflict: A Practical Guide to the Science of Both by James Scott Harvey [copyright 2023; used by permission of East Prairie Lane Press].  For more information and a free sample preview copy of the book visit <>


James Harvey

James Scott Harvey has over forty-six years of human services experience, working in the areas of behavioral health, mediation, and more. His work has included direct micro services, administrative macro services, and teaching. He used his lifetime of experiences to develop the ideas inside the book, The Emotional Side of… MORE >

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