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Each Conflict is “Unaverage”

Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution Blog by Stephanie West Allen

If you have attended a program at which I have presented recently, you have probably heard me talk about what I call the Maxim of SIN. It is the antidote to one-size-fits-all approaches in conflict resolution (or in other processes and activities, too). SIN stands for Situational, Individual, Now. Here’s another reminder about the perils of interacting with parties in a manner that is Procrustean.

Dr.Todd Rose, a dropout from high school teaches at Harvard; click to read his CV. In this video from Cyberlearning Summit 2012 titled "Variability Matters," he talks about the problems that result when we ignore variability in the classroom and instead teach to the mythological average learner. He points out the brain has billions of neurons which form networks based on many factors, including day-to-day environment. This results in a rich diversity of brains in any classroom so why do we try to teach as if the brains are similar or even identical? He talks about what we lose when we teach to the average student, a being that lives only in fantasies and computer programs.

Of course, we have the same rich variability and diversity of brains and minds among parties to a dispute and yet how often do we see conflict professionals implementing notions and models and techniques that ignore this heterogeneity? Most the time, I believe. If you think I am exaggerating, listen to what is being taught about mediation. We hear things like, "Well, when this happens, the brain is doing X so what the mediator should do is Y." Or even, "These are the steps the mediator should take to resolve a dispute." Listen and you will hear the formulaic recommendations and advice.

If only conflict resolution were that cut-and-dried! As Dr. Rose says, "Variability matters." Artful, effective strategies are only possible when one understands variability very, very well.

There are ways to assess, appreciate, adapt to, and act upon (and with) the distinctiveness of each party, conflict, and mediator. I blogged about one method last week at idealawg. How are you making sure that you recognize each conflict’s distinctiveness and keep sharp your skills at observing and capitalizing on differences, exceptions, and uniqueness?

If you are interested in the benefits of understanding uniqueness, take a look at "The Science of the Individual" (Mind, Brain, and Education) [behind paywall] of which Rose is the lead author. Abstract:
Our goal is to establish a science of the individual, grounded in dynamic systems, and focused on the analysis of individual variability. Our argument is that individuals behave, learn, and develop in distinctive ways, showing patterns of variability that are not captured by models based on statistical averages. As such, any meaningful attempt to develop a science of the individual necessarily begins with an account of the individual variability that is pervasive in all aspects of behavior, and at all levels of analysis. Using examples from fields as diverse as education and medicine, we show how starting with individual variability, not statistical averages, helped researchers discover two sources of ordered variability—pathways and contexts—that have implications for theory, research, and practice in multiple disciplines. We conclude by discussing three broad challenges—data, models, and the nature of science—that must be addressed to ensure that the science of the individual reaches its full potential.

The science of the individual. A phrase worth remembering, particularly when we begin to lose the beginner’s mind and see many parties as marching to the same drummer, the same beat. If we assume sameness, the resolutions reached in our mediations may be as fitting as stepsisters’ feet in Cinderella’s slipper.

– See more at:


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

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