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Connecting Neurobiology and Mediation

Recent research in neurobiology, as summarized in Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph LeDoux, has some very important implications for mediation. As LeDoux points out, many philosophers and scientists have conceived of the mind since the time of Plato as being a trilogy of cognition, emotion, and motivation. While cognition (active thought) received most of the attention throughout the 20th century (particularly among legal scholars and behaviorists), research is now concluding that thinking cannot be fully understood without attending to emotion (defined by LeDoux as “the process by which the brain determines or computes the value of a stimulus”) and motivation (defined as “neural activity that guides us toward goals”).

LeDoux insists that the three parts of the mental trilogy are inextricably interrelated. So if mediators want parties to understand each other’s perception of a conflict, then mediators need to facilitate understanding at all three levels of the mind. Unfortunately, this kind of facilitation is not as easy as simply asking disputants how they feel or what is motivating their positions, because so much of the human brain’s work is done implicitly and not readily available to conscious awareness. Research by Donald Hebb indicates that observers are often better able to characterize a person’s emotions than the person actually experiencing them. For example, while a jealous subject might describe mere frustration with another person (perhaps as an unconscious attempt to appear more socially acceptable), observers are typically able to recognize the emotional state more accurately as jealousy.

To help insure accurate interpretations, mediators need to help parties become more aware of their unconscious thoughts, emotions and motivations. One of the best ways to do this is for the mediator to make informed guesses about a party’s feelings (the body’s physiological response to an emotional stimulus), and motivations (how the person acts in response). The mediator then confirms these guesses with the disputants to insure accuracy, modifying the conclusions if necessary.

For example, Ann says she’s not able to discuss problems directly with her supervisor Mary because she does not want to lose her job. The mediator summarizes this thought by reframing: “It sounds like you would like to feel more secure about your job and your relationship with Mary. Is that correct?” In this situation, Mary’s attempts to speak to Ann about job performance issues (emotional stimuli) were perceived by Ann as a threat to her security (emotional reaction). Ann’s fear of losing her job (feeling) motivated her to avoid discussing problems (action response) which could have led to improved performance and, quite possibly, greater job security. In this example, the mediator has helped expose an unexpressed and presumably unconscious emotion so that both parties can attain a more precise and accurate understanding of the problem. In correctly reflecting Ann’s emotional state, the mediator has also intervened to reduce her stress, having proved that she was heard.

It is important to remember that the party must agree with the mediator’s assessment for it to be useful in mediation. In addition to promoting self-determination, this agreement step also helps differentiate the mediation process from therapy. Disputants who are unable to recognize how the mental trilogy affects their decision making in mediation may need the additional expertise of a therapist in order to do so. Emotions are definitely powerful motivators which guide our thoughts and actions by giving them meaning and value. They are not, as previously conceived, merely obstructive appraisals which only get in the way of expressing one’s thoughts.

Another way to visualize how the trilogy connects to mediation is to consider what happens when all parts of the trilogy are not congruent. As most mediators recognize, an agreement has the greatest chance for success when the disputants really want it to work (they are motivated), when everyone feels good about it (positive emotional reaction), and all parties truly believe that it will solve the problem (adequate thought was devoted to the conflict). If any one element of the trilogy is lacking, the agreement is likely to be weak or ineffective.

Likewise, if a disputant is stressed throughout the mediation, s/he is prone to making bad decisions. This is because the brain always gives highest priority to perceived threats (emotional stimuli). Threats are processed and acted on immediately and unconsciously by the amygdala, a small structure of the mid-brain, before they are sent to the prefrontal cortext for further analysis, often resulting in familiar defensive reactions such as angry outbursts, impatient interruptions, a lack of listening, rapid fire denials, and counter-accusations. It also appears that the amygdala and the prefrontal cortext are reciprocally related in that when one is active, the other is shut down. In other words, we are physiologically incapable of channeling the kind of neural energy necessary for successful conflict resolution to our frontal lobes while simultaneously defending ourselves against emotional stimuli. It is therefore essential that mediators become skilled at reducing disputant stress by identifying and addressing emotional issues early in the dispute.

So how do the advances in neurobiology affect the debate between so-called evaluative and facilitative mediators? Quite simply they suggest that when mediators (usually with an evaluative orientation) attempt to limit problem solving to cognitive processes only, they engage in yet another futile attempt to deny the reality and relevance of the mental trilogy, and they set the stage for either a failed mediation or weak agreements.


Cris Currie

Cris M. Currie has been a mediator and conflict management trainer since 1987.  He holds a Master of Arts degree in conflict resolution from Antioch University.  He co-designed the Certificate in Conflict Management program at Eastern Washington University and teaches courses in conflict resolution, negotiation, and mediation.  He is a… MORE >

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