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Saturday, October 1, 2011

Neuroscience, Emotions and Conflict Resolution

As a mediator in New Mexico, I strive to keep apprised of current literature and emergent theories in the mediation field.  One exciting trend is the rise of growing understanding of the importance in neuroscience and emotions in the field of mediation.  These trends are highlighted in the Summer 2011 ACResolution Quarterly Magazine, in a number of excellent articles I'd like to summarize here.

In “How the Brain Brings Science ‘To the Table,’” Martha Bean writes about what emerging neuroscience has to teach us about popular scientific disputes. Participants in these disputes are often astounded about the existence of the dispute, because to each side the science and arguments are so clear.  But, scientific disputes arise regularly.  Ms. Bean identified four particular sources for such disputes:
  • The power of fear—fear is a powerful emotion that arises out of “[t]he most primitive portion of our brain, the amygdala, and that fearful people operating in reaction to this visceral emotion will not likely be swayed by studies or reasoning.  
  • Learning, knowledge and certainty—the process of learning and knowing creates feelings of pleasure, but can give rise to “an ironic positive feedback loop,” where we cling to certainty so are then discouraged from additional learning that might challenge those certainties.
  • Information and affiliation biases—we tend to credit or discredit research or studies based on our affiliation or affinity to the source.  For example, in one study participants readily agreed with the statement that “a camel is bigger than a dog,” unless that statement was attributed to a Republican or Democratic politician.  In that case, the participants generally found cause to quibble with the statement, such as stating it could be a new born or dwarf camel and a very large dog breed.
  • A rational mind—we humans have a profound need to belief in our rational mind rather than an emotional one, so we expect our arguments and facts to necessarily persuade others, but emerging science teaches us that the rational mind is not “disembodied from the senses, experiences, developmental history and genetic variations that constitute the person within which the brain—and thus the mind--resides.”

In “Neuroscience of Emotion,” Christian and Annmarie Early write about an “emotional revolution” in our thinking of neuroscience, and the discrediting of “[s]harp dichotomies between mind and body”.  From there, they analyze relationship dispute resolution in the context of modern attachment theory, which posits attachment theory’s applicability throughout the course of our lives, not only during the informative “0-3” years.  They reason that most of such conflicts stem from an “attachment rupture,’ wherein one party has not been there for or met the emotional or safety/security needs of the other party.  They also submit that the “attachment-rupture” process can be a cycle that builds resilience, but that successful repair to the attachment relationship requires the parties share their “affect narrative” in terms of safety and danger.

In “Talking to the ‘Right’ Brain in a Conflict,” Bill Eddy discusses the traditional left (linear/problem solving/logical) – right (emotional/artistic/relationship) brain dichotomy in the context of dispute resolution and “high conflict personalities” such as narcissists.  He notes that once engaged in conflict mode, the right brain largely takes over processing information, but it is not capable of sorting things logically.  Thus, we must first “talk to the right brain,” to help that person shift gears.  Although he speaks to high conflict personalities in particular, he observes that this general tendency applies to all of us. 

To get through to the emotional right brain, Eddy suggest that we don’t try to confront the person, but instead reach them with “EAR statements that demonstrate “I empathize with you, I will pay attention to your concerns, and I respect the efforts you’ve made to solve this problem.”  Only after diffusing the right brain should we focus on logical problem solving.  In the case of high conflict personalities, this will likely include making proposals, encouraging them to make an alternate proposal if they get stuck in complaint mode, setting limits to permit others to speak, and educating the individual about consequences of various actions.

If you are interested in child-related mediation or GAL (guardian ad litem) services, please contact Pilar Vaile, P.C. at (505) 247-0802, or info@pilarvailepc.com.