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Different Ways of Looking at the Same Thing!

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

I attended the California State Bar Conference a few weeks ago. One of the panels, entitled Ten Common Mistakes in Mediation and How to Avoid Them, was presented by several speakers including Steve Mehta and Doug Noll.

Both Messrs. Mehta and Noll discussed the neuroscience/ psychology involved in what it takes to resolve conflicts. Initially, I thought their respective approaches were different but as I thought about it afterwards and reviewed their handouts, I slowly realized they were both saying the same thing in different ways.

Both start with the very accurate premise that emotions, not logic, control our decision making. (Unlike Mr. Spock, we are emotional, not logical, souls.) Thus, each cautioned; do not attempt to talk logically to someone who is emotionally caught up in conflict; it will fall on deaf ears. Although we are far removed from being hunters and gatherers in the forest where our very survival depended on whether we could kill the bison for our next meal or outrun/outsmart the wolf who saw us as her next meal, our brains still work in those terms; fight or flight, rewards or threats.  While the threats we may perceive in modern times are social rather than physical, our brains react as though they are still physical in nature.

Thus, drawing on the work of David Rock’s book, Brain at Work, Mr. Mehta suggests that we position rewards and social threats at opposite ends of a continuum, and endeavor to provide Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness at the rewards end of this scale.

Status relates to social hierarchy, self-respect and one’s rank in society. Rather than threatening one’s status by making that person feel humiliated, inferior, or demeaned, we should use language that rewards by acknowledging, actively listening to the person and responding in a positive fashion. One can acknowledge a person’s value and work, yet still disagree with the proposition being proffered.

Certainty is the opposite of chaos. The one thing about trial is that it is uncertain and unfamiliar thereby creating chaos. People have a hard time dealing with the unfamiliar and feel threatened by uncertainty (aka chaos).  Rather than emphasize the unknown (i.e. trial = threat) which will be perceived as threatening, highlight the certainty (i.e. settlement = reward) of the situation, by discussing the familiar, and emphasizing consistency and stability. Reaching a resolution certainly can be rewarding.

Autonomy is the flip side of  being controlled. We all want to be in control of our lives. When we are not in control, we feel threatened. So, by providing people with options, choices, and input, we provide the autonomy and thus move them towards the “rewards” end of the continuum and away from the “threats” end.

Everyone wants to belong; this is what Relatedness is all about. If we treat the opposing disputant as a “friend” (i.e., a friendly adversary) rather than an enemy, she will not feel threatened but rather rewarded. No one likes rejection; so while we may disagree with the opposing disputant, this does not mean that we cannot still treat her as part of the group or as belonging or with dignity and respect.   Again- think in positive terms.

Finally, and most important is the notion of Fairness. We all want fairness in our dealings with the world. When we have a result that is “fair”, we think of it in terms of being a “reward”, and likewise, when we receive an unfair or unjust result, we feel threatened.

While Mr. Mehta views resolving conflicts in terms of increasing the rewards and minimizing the threats, Mr. Noll looks at this paradigm in terms of needs. To resolve a conflict, Mr. Noll suggests that each party has six needs that must be met; Vengeance, Vindication, Validation, A Need to be Heard, A Need to Create Meaning, and A Need for Safety.

While we all want Vengeance, when we actually get it, we feel let down. Ironically, the dopamine or the chemical that makes us feel good is released while we are seeking vengeance, not when it is attained.

Everyone needs to be right, and thus Vindicated. At the same time, we each need to be Validated-   or acknowledged that we are a good person, we follow the rules and have behaved properly.

The Need to be heard is critical. People will not resolve their conflicts until they feel they have been heard. Long ago, I learned that when people repeat themselves, it is because they feel they have not been heard. They will continue to tell their story or express their upset over and over and over again, until the listener acknowledges that she has heard and understood them.

And in that acknowledgment, the listener must convey a sense of Safety; that the person who is expressing herself feels that the environment is safe from a physical, emotional and spiritual standpoint.

According to Mr. Noll, these needs must be met to resolve any conflict. Yet these needs can be placed on the threat- rewards continuum.  All of them can be seen in terms of increasing one’s rewards while diminishing one’s threats.

And… both Messrs. Mehta and Noll recognize that emotions, not logic, are the driving force. In the most simplistic of terms, we react emotionally, not logically, to life and the conflicts it brings.   To ignore this simple truth will lead to failure in resolving any conflict.


… Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack

Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as… MORE >

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