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Conflict Resolution is a Change Process, But What is Changing?: The Neural Reality of Conflict Experience

A conflict resolution process is a change process. Parties may initially come to a mediation or negotiation to win or to get their way. They will likely be quite certain about their understanding of the situation. They may be sure that they are right. They will have some level of firm attachment to what we call their positions.

The conflict is a battle of disagreement. Opposition tends to be inflexible.

One way or another, a successful resolution process by definition will require the parties to change. If they are able to achieve a resolution to their dispute or disagreement, they will have necessarily shifted their understanding of and beliefs about the conflict, the other party or parties, and the possible settlement solutions.

As we work to help the parties find their way to agreement, we ask them to look at their problem in new ways, to understand the other’s perspective differently, to consider solutions they may not have anticipated.

At the end of a successful mediation, the parties will see the world and themselves differently than they had when they first came to the mediation room. And indeed, we third parties may also experience some degree of change in our perception of the parties or the impressions we may have formed about the conflict along the way.

It may sound like a grand claim that parties will see the world and themselves differently at the end of a successful mediation. The degree of change in worldview and self-understanding will vary depending on the depth and significance of the conflict. But to one degree or another, this is fundamentally the change that happens when parties move from their initial conflict impasse to a settlement agreement.

The fact that worldview and identity are involved helps to explain why reaching agreement and resolution can be so difficult at times. We are not always easily inclined to change our understanding of the world and ourselves.

Conflicts are largely about differences in what we know, think, believe, and understand. When we speak of change in understandings and beliefs, to what are we actually referring? Where do these elements of experience exist? As I emphasize in my recent book Embodied Conflict: the neural basis of conflict and communication, we are embodied beings. Our experiences of cognition and identity arise out of and are embedded in the neural structures of the brain and extended nervous system.

Don Tucker, neuroscientist and psychologist, writes, “Complex psychological functions must arise from bodily structures. There is no other source for them.” (Tucker, 2007, p. 218) and “To find the mind, we must look to the body.” (p. 16) When we ask someone to change his or her mind, we are speaking not only figuratively but literally. To change our mind, our body must change; the neural structures of the brain that embody what we know and who we are, must be reconfigured to one degree or another. Depending on the circumstances, there will be more or less resistance to prospective change.

Beginning before birth, our brain encodes perceptual experience in dynamic and relatively stable neural networks. Without this function, there would be no learning, no remembering, and no development of identity. Our perceptual experience of the world is embodied as it shapes us by creating these webs of neural networks. What we call “formative experiences” do actually form the structures of our brain.

As Tucker and Luu (2012) put it, “Each cognitive process is a developmental event, an act of the historical self. Furthermore, each cognitive process is a transformational event; as the representation is consolidated, the self is then changed. The degree of change depends on the negotiation between assimilation and accommodation, effecting the consolidation of cognition…Thought shapes the literal anatomical structure of the brain, and the self.” (p. 209).

What we know is who we are. Psychology is biology shaped by genetics and experience. These are the structures of knowing and the matrices of meaning that comprise our identity and with which parties in conflict face each other. Each new perceptual experience may confirm our previous experience, reinforcing previously established neural circuits. Or it may present new experience that is then encoded to expand the neural structures of knowing. Or it may contradict previous experience, in which case neural structures will be restructured to accommodate and incorporate the new information or the perceptual experience will be dismissed, denied, or disregarded and will not revise previously established neural structures.

As Tucker (2007) puts it, “The mind is not neatly modular, with components or faculties of specific cognitions. Rather, it is of a piece, such that new learning disrupts old knowledge. This is a dialectical balance in which information is not free. It requires transformation. In order to find a new and improved self, one must sacrifice one’s old self.” (p. 22) and, “When a discrepancy is encountered, then you face the stability-plasticity dilemma. You can stay the same (choose stability), in which case you are uninformed, but at least you preserve the historical self. You can change (choose plasticity) and become informed, but in the process you have to give up the old self and confront the painful novelty of a new identity.” (p. 133)

These are the dynamics parties face in considering whether and how to resolve a dispute, though they will not be thinking of their experience in these neural terms. Recognizing that change is a physical, bodily process, we can better appreciate the nature of the difficulties parties may be experiencing as they engage in the change process.

In conflict resolution, change is necessary but is not always easy or simple. Understanding the physical basis of perception, cognition, and change may provide insights into how to adjust our interventions to better take into account the neural reality of party experience.

In a subsequent article, I’ll explore some thoughts on how we might adjust our practice according to the neural basis of experience.


Hicks, Tim. (2018) Embodied Conflict: the neural basis of conflict and communication. New York: Routledge.

Tucker, D. (2007). Mind from Body: Experience from neural structure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tucker, D., & Luu, P. (2012). Cognition and Neural Development. Oxford: Oxford


Tim Hicks

Tim Hicks is a conflict management professional providing mediation, facilitation, training, coaching, and consulting to individuals and organizations. From 2006 to 2014 he led the Master’s degree program in Conflict and Dispute Resolution at the University of Oregon as its first director. He returned to private practice in 2015. Tim is… MORE >

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