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The “Secret Sauce” of Grief Counseling and Mediation: A Different Eye

Mediation Bytes by Karin Hobbs

I recently attended a session entitled “What Mediators Can Learn from the Brain Science of Grief Counseling” at the Northwest Dispute Resolution Conference in Seattle. I was interested that the lecturer, Professor John Medina, a molecular biologist fed up with current popular myths surrounding neuroscience and author of Brain Rules, was explaining a method of grief counseling that actually helps people who have been traumatized.

First, Professor Medina explained that grief counseling used at the time of the 9/11 disaster, Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) was actually exacerbating the trauma of the victims, as I discussed in my blog entitled “Recalling Traumatic Events: Cathartic or Destructive?“ Professor Medina explained that the process of having a person recall an event in detail immediately after the event, has the effect of reinforcing the negative/traumatic aspects of the event. Professor Medina introduced a new method of grief counseling he named the “secret sauce” of Professor James Pennebaker.

Under Pennebaker’s method, the first step in assisting a trauma victim is to allow time to pass. With the passage of a month, the brain has a natural tendency to remember positive rather than negative aspects of a traumatic event and may heal more rapidly. After a month has passed, the therapist has the patient, on 4 consecutive days immerse himself in the trauma for only 30 minutes per day. During that 30 minutes, the patient is instructed to replay the event and experience the feelings of the event to develop a deeper sense of the event and how it has impacted them. Professor Medina described the exercise as a process in which a person looks back on the event as an objective third party looking into the event. The patient then journals the emotions he felt during the event, completely describing the emotions in an effort to more deeply understand how it impacted him. By viewing the event as an objective third party and journaling, the traumatized patient will begin to understand his or her feelings about the event, instead of simply his reactions.

Pennebaker’s researchers found that patients who journaled their feelings had less stress, 50% less fear and anxiety about upcoming procedures, healed more quickly and had fewer negative impacts from the traumatic event.

Mediators perform a similar function. Rather than the patient creating the objective viewpoint, mediators listen to both sides and create for the parties a “third story” with a different eye that both parties can hear and understand. For example, in a recent death case, an older gentleman drove into the broadside of a semi-truck, killing the gentleman. His wife, sleeping in the passenger seat, survived. As I talked with her, she envisioned the death occurring because her husband, through no fault of his own, could not see the semi-truck blocking the road. That was the only explanation she could see based on her view of him as a loving, caring spouse. When I mentioned that we would never really know if he had seen the vehicle. We really did not know whether he was sleeping or whether he had passed out due to his medical condition because he was not here to tell us. After repeating that third story several times, she began to understand that there could be another perspective on the accident that could affect her success in court. She moved along in her grief and began to see the way towards settlement.

Mediators often communicate the neutral third story to both sides in an effort to have them see the dispute from a neutral vantage point. Through this process, clients can see how perceptions may vary and may be able to view the event from a different eye, moving them closer to resolution.


Karin S. Hobbs

A Fellow and Board member of the International Academy of Mediators, Karin has enjoyed a distinguished career as a mediator, an attorney and a trainer.  She established the Appellate Mediation Office at the Utah Court of Appeals in 1997, served as Chief Appellate Mediator, was Bar Counsel for the Utah… MORE >

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