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Cross Disciplinary Approach to Conflict Resolution

From Maria Simpson’s Two-Minute Training

Conflict resolution is a much more complex process than just negotiating for a settlement of stuff, so I was really pleased that the recent conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution included a wide range a cross-disciplinary topics. Not only can the skills of mediation be applied to many different situations, but mediation can be influenced by other areas of study as well.
One of the most interesting sessions was presented by Rob McNiff on “Behavioral Economics and the Psychology of Conflict.” Behavioral economics is a relatively hot topic lately, so connecting it to conflict resolution seemed like an interesting path to explore.
Behavioral economics used to propose that behavior was driven by rational self-interest, that is, we would all do what was in our rational self-interest all the time. Well, we know that doesn’t work. Emotions take over and discount rationality if we really want a particular outcome.
McNiff discussed the concept of rational choice being “bounded” by emotions, cognitive abilities, knowledge, bias, willpower, and emotions among other things, so we can’t always appeal to our rational selves to resolve a dispute anyway.
While I am familiar with attribution bias, the belief that bad behavior is always a result of inherently bad character especially of a group other than our own, I was not familiar with other forms of bias that affect the outcomes of disputes.

  • Self-serving bias refers to the overly optimistic belief that we can reach the outcome we desire because our position is more valuable than the other person’s, that our arguments are right, that arguments against our positions are trivial, and that we are the only people who can make a decision on the dispute. The more information we get, the more insistent we are about our own positions. So much for rational self-interest.
  • Explanation bias is the belief that an event will occur if we just explain clearly enough how it might occur. We don’t take into account the vagaries of chance and luck or the impact of risk, and prefer our stories of the future to the stories of the other party, no matter how much sense these stories make to the other party.

The mediator can address these biases by doing a reality check, asking each side to explain the other side’s position, and asking one side to explain how the other side’s story makes sense to them.
There was way too much of interest in this session to do justice to it in this piece, but it was well worth the time.
The other cross-disciplinary session of particular interest to me was “Conflict Resolution: An Art Or a (Neuro) Science?” by Geoff Drucker, author of Resolving 21st Century Disputes. This session explained the brain’s process for dealing with a threat and how mediators can address this process to begin the conversation.
Initially the brain perceives a threat, and a sense of anxiety results. This perceived threat, whether or not it is actually the pack of wolves shown on the screen at the conference, is something that cannot be negotiated, so the brain prepares for flight or fight, and distractions such as logic and emotion are simply ignored. The brain is definitely not logical at this point, and rationality shuts down, causing us to “lose motivation and capacity to cooperate just when we need them the most.”
Mediators can reduce this sense of anxiety and promote cooperation by reducing the perception of threat and managing the time, location, format, and content of the mediation, demonstrating that the threat can be controlled. In addition, decisions get harder when there is too much information, too many options (more than six), no known rules that tell us what the “right” decision is, and the need is to avoid the decision, so these aspects of the mediation can also be controlled by keeping the discussion focused and homing in on a few options.
This discussion raised the idea of a “happiness set point,” something that has been discussed in relation to lottery winners who suddenly find themselves with huge amounts of money and unlimited possibilities. Lottery winners have said that they were extremely happy after winning, but whether they invested well or spent it all, eventually they returned to the degree of happiness they felt before winning.
Maybe the outcome of a mediation has less direct impact on our happiness than does our happiness set point, and we should aim for satisfaction, contentment, and a feeling of value as part of the outcome.
These two sessions demonstrated the complexity of conflict resolution and how we can learn from colleagues in other disciplines. More to come.
In the meantime, have a wonderful, peaceful week. 


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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