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Regulating In-The-Way Emotions In Conflict Resolution: Is The Difference Between A Roar And A Purr Found In The Eye Of The Beholder (Or Ear Of The Listener)?

From Stephanie West Allen’s blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

Conflicts that include runaway emotions can be very difficult to resolve, of course. Because there are so many methods of emotion regulation, James Gross and Ross Thompson have created a handy model that makes the various methods easier to sort and recall. I like models because they give me a place to store things in my thinking, a nice overview to organize me mentally. This one that I will present in a moment also gives me a good checklist of some of the possible interventions when parties are stuck.

There are four points of the model; one point has two subparts so, in my brain, I see it as a five-point model.  I will list the points and then use a story Gross and Thompson presented in Handbook of Emotion Regulation to illustrate each of the five.

  • Situation-Selection
  • Situation-Modification
  • Attention
  • Appraisal
  • Response

(The model is also described by Gross in this chapter on emotion regulation.)

To help you understand each of the points of the model, consider the story of a boy going for his first formal haircut. In advance, his father scouts out several barber shops and chooses one he thinks will be appealing to his son. That's emotion regulation through situation-selection. They arrive at the shop and sit down to to wait for the next available barber.

The first barber that approaches them looks mean and has a big beard. The father says he would like to wait for the next barber. He is using situation-modification. Soon a friendly barber seats the boy in the chair and begins the cut. The boy is very interested at first but then grows bored and wants to leave.

His father assures him they will be leaving soon and asks him what he wants for his birthday and the son begins to think of possible options. That's regulation through attention. But then the barber turns on the shaver. The boy bursts into tears and is terrified of the "monster's roar." The father tells him that, just like their cat, the machine is purring. He just used appraisal.

The boy calms down for a while but then notices all of his hair on the floor and gets upset again. His father can't think of anything else to say except to tell him that big kids shouldn't cry and to stop it right now. This is trying to get the boy to regulate his emotion through response.

Each of these points can be used in a mediation or negotiation to maximize chances for resolution. I have described the use of attention, appraisal, and response in past posts at Brains on Purpose. I talked about one use of attention in regulation emotions: labeling the affect. I often have blogged about the extreme importance of both parties and conflict professionals being self-aware which is one kind of attention. I have also blogged about the utility of appraisal.

And I have mentioned in the past two of the activities Gross and Thompson mention for emotion regulation through response: relaxation and exercise. Other responses they mention are not recommended here: drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. They also list food. I have seen food used in mediations as a facilitative ingredient moving parties towards resolution. But if it is used as a way of sedating akin to drinking alcohol, food is probably not an asset.

I have found this five-part model to be very helpful, and hope it will be helpful to you, to, in your work with emotion regulation. Emotion themselves are not inappropriate or useless, but unregulated emotions can get in the way of conflict resolution. The field of emotion regulation has many tools for us in expediting regulation.

If you are wondering about the neuroscience of the these emotion regulation methods, click through to the other posts to which I have linked.

Image credit: Sebastiano.


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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