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Your Conflict Set To Music

“Anthropologists discovered that when cultures with different musical traditions come into contact they create mutual influence – almost as if musical traditions can’t help but influence one another,” Jeanette Bicknell, author of Why Music Moves Us (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), explained to me in a recent conversation. She pointed out “This isn’t necessarily bad or good so much as a fact to be recognized. It challenges some assumptions about appropriation.” It also challenges peace-makers to use differences and ‘hear people out’ not only in the words spoken but in the tenor of the discourse, possibly adding music as a tool the mediators’ toolbox, and music can be a vital tool.

Consider how orchestrated music makes people relax. Dentists pipe it into their waiting rooms to calm frayed nerves, and mediators might do the same, but music can do much more throughout a mediation.

The human voice is a carefully attuned instrument and musical training helps a person assess the emotional tone of any encounter, increasing a person’s ability to process emotion in sound, and even in wordless utterances. There is a direct relationship between the number of years of musical training and the skill level in assessing the emotional tone in speech, and the earlier the musicians age the stronger the ability. A recent study indicated that musicians, hearing a sound for only 50 milliseconds, might be able to sense the emotion in the utterance. (Strait et al. “Musical experience and neural efficiency – effects of training on subcortical processing of vocal expressions of emotion.” European Journal of Neuroscience, 2009; 29 (3).)

A mediator can honor this gift of emotional intelligence, first by recognizing its value. At the outset we can remind participants how we set a certain tone in what we say and how we say it, usually unconsciously. You can also ask participants if perhaps they have a finely tuned instrument in your voice, or a trained ear, and help out – to say what they’re hearing in crucial moments.

Of course, you will want to make sure this isn’t an invitation to question another party’s sincerity if there’s a discrepancy between one’s tone and the words spoken. Yet, one’s musical sensibility is an asset around the mediation table – a gift someone brings to the table just as some people bring keen analytic skills or a great sense of humor. A trained ear will detect such discrepancies whether we acknowledge the gift or not. Why not use it to move the mediation forward?

Musical training enhances one’s ability, and even an underdeveloped capacity can be of some use in a mediation or peace-making endeavor. When helping to surface the conflict your tone of voice might change, and you can pay careful attention to the parties shifts in tone that might reinforce or contradict the actual words they speak. Simply being conscious of the tone can help a mediator facilitate the process. Yet you can do more with music than merely observe and control the subtle tones: consider setting the conflict to music, using actual tunes the way they do in Broadway musicals to affect dramatic shifts, or create quieter moments for contemplation.

My own use of music began intuitively in a family mediation involving several parties involved with their respective lawyers – a rather crowded board room with many layers to the conflict including a family business, three generations, real estate: think NBC’s Brothers & Sisters ten years from now, things have gone seriously south in the Walker’s family business, and may need to be moved to an assisted living situation. Practically no one’s talking. We settled the business and real estate issues, assets and debts resolved, and the lawyers were putting it all down on paper when one of the two most acrimonious parties insisted, “I want a clause there that he can’t bad mouth me to the neighbors.” The ‘he’ in question of course blew up. “I don’t have to tell the neighbors; they know what kind of man you are.” Then all hell broke lose and the lawyers threw down their pens, “Here we go again.”

I stood up like a conductor stepping up to the podium with her baton, and everyone settled down. I took my seat again, knowing I just had seconds to turn this around. I reminded the two disruptive parties that if this agreement held then after two months they never needed to see each other again unless they chose to do so; they just had to get along for these two months. So, I suggested, if the other person was annoying them could they just run a favorite song through their heads? We know about going to one’s happy place? How about going to your happy song? The lawyers all looked at me as if I was crazy but the clients nodded, “Yeah, that will work.” And it did. The family assets were preserved, and eventually they moved on.

A few days later I was debriefing with John Winslade, co-author of, Narrative Medition (Jossey-Boss, 2000) and he got a far away look. “Yeah, you know,” he said, “I had a song that got me through exams at school. I’d have my sharpened pencil and exam book and run the song through my head: Walk right in, sit right down. Baby let you mind roll on…”

Now I’m becoming more intentional and resourceful, especially with my musically inclined clients. I ask parties to play a song over in their heads to relax, to distract themselves from negative reactions to the other parties suggestions, or simply to give themselves time to think.

What works for clients also can assist the mediator stay balanced and in the moment. The opening bars of Bethovan’s 9th run through my head, a fine counterpoint to a verbose attorney’s opening statement. And I can up my compassion/task ratio to let a husband grieve his relationship, with Ne-Yo’s lyric, “Said I’m so sick of love songs, so tired of tears… Why can’t I turn off the radio.” Take a deep breath, and get down to the practice of working toward an agreement, creating a new play list.


Roberta Morris

Dr. Roberta Morris specializes in narrative and facilitative mediation models. She is author of several novels and works of non-fiction, including the resource Ending Violence in Families. Presently she is writing Artful Mediation, compiling best practices that draw upon the many gifts people bring to the table as they find means… MORE >

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