Association for Conflict Resolution's Blog

Neuroscience and Mediation

Posted in Uncategorized by Association for Conflict Resolution on May 28, 2010

“No area of understanding is more relevant and important to mediation competency than a basic understanding of how the human brain functions, perceives events, processes emotional notions, cognitive response and formulates decisions. The awareness of cognitive neuroscience and psychology are at the heart of our work in managing conflict and problem solving.”

Robert Benjamin, 2009

This session is fundamentally about helping mediators look at different approaches (grounded in neuroscience) to making progress in conflict-driven mediations.

The presenters note they average 7-8 mediation cases per week, each; so they’re up to 5,000 hours or more a year, spent in mediation sessions. They work with couples all the way through the separation and divorce process, as well as on court-referrals and education. In addition, they do conflict coaching.

“We live within the practice of working with people in conflict.”

The session begins with an overview of brain science and its impact on the mediation dynamic, and then looks at ways to enhance mediator training by considering the role of practice and “intent” on the evolution of competence.

Speaker 1:

The Quest for Answers

I see clients go into a trance-like dance of conflict. They would have tension with each other. It’s a drama—and I was the audience. And I’d think, I have all these questions I have to ask you. They would pay attention to me for a small amount of time. Then they’d go back to their dance.

So I’d ask every mediator I met, can you please help me understand this? What’s going on here?

I didn’t grasp fully the effect emotions have on people in conflict.

And I didn’t know how the brain worked and I didn’t realize that when the brain works and learns in a particular way through association and repetition. This creates a track of learning, which gets ‘bedded down’ over time.

So people come in with their stories intact, fully embedded.

Neuroscience as a Key to Understanding

Then I came to realize, I needed to look at the brain and how it deals with conflict. So I come at this as a practitioner, not a neuroscientist.

Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system, advances the understanding of human thought, emotion, and behavior.

All cognitive decisions are made in an emotional context, says Robert Benjamin. There is no separating the people from the problem.

‘There is no such thing as the cool-headed reasoner.’ (Neuroscientist Antonio Damaseo).

In mediation, we should get people to turn towards each other, rather than away from each other.

This is our framework—what we’re always trying to maximize as mediators.

The speaker makes the point that mediators tend to think the ‘neo-mamallian’ portion of the brain that governs planning and thought is at the heart of the mediation process—that drives mediation forward. Whereas in reality, it’s the more ancient brain stem which rules the most basic human drives (fight, flight, food, and fornication) that’s at the heart of mediation interactions.

It helps to understand that apart from our needs to ensure primary survival, we also experience other needs—social needs that can be defined by the acronym, SCARF:

  • Status
  • Connection
  • Autonomy
  • Relationships
  • Fairness

Recognizing this dichotomy (between primal and social needs) can assist mediators in helping people to transition from “protect” mode (among the primary needs) to “connect” mode (among the social needs).

In chemical terms, it’s about moving from adrenalin (tied to fight/flight) to oxytocin production, which triggers a more relaxed, supported, state – a “humanized” state.

“It all boils down to this: Feelings are stronger than thoughts.

“As a mediator, I watch for the fear response, and for people’s ability to process information. When they’re looking scared or closed, I don’t ask them what they think about something—or what options they would come up with. Instead, I slow things down, create calmness and I listen for what is the key thing for the client.

“This is the bedrock on which everything else is built. If we don’t get past here, we don’t make progress.”

Put another way, if you “ask to the wrong bit of the brain,” you’re not heard as a mediator and you’re not connecting in the way you need to.

“This is why mediators need to be skilled empathic listeners.”

Returning to neuroscience, it’s the prefrontal cortex that grounds us in relationship with each other—from attuning to those around you, and experiencing empathy, through to creating a capacity for insight and moral thinking.

“This is what we do as mediators. We connect with. We synthesize it all, put our own positive spin on it, and then send it back. In other words, we shepherd our clients through the prefrontal cortex.”

Scientist Geoffrey Schwartz says:

“When a person changes their interpretation of the information or situation and changes the way they focus attention in adaptive ways, this will change their brain [sic].”

This is what the mediator seeks to accomplish with clients.

Think of it as brain plasticity—the ability of the brain to change through learning.

“I stopped giving myself hell when clients were saying the same thing for the 15 millionth time. They’ve been telling them this story for the last 5 years. Me asking one wonderful question isn’t going to change that.

“So I try to get inside that story, create a little crack, and give them time to reflect. Or help them check out the accuracy of their assumptions.

“Neurons that wire together, fire together. Repeating a behavior strengthens it.”

Speaker 2

Training Mediators

“As mediators, the instinctive brain also rules. We all know that should be peacemakers. That we should listen. But what happens is we have these moments where that goes out the window and anxiety (a primal state) takes over.

“We need to bring our training to a point where mediators have the capacity to come through that.

“Let’s look at it this way.

“We begin as novices, turn into apprentices, and then go from master to artist, or some combination. We go into a place where we have a ‘flow.’

“So when we create a training program, we bring people through these stages. If we see this from a performance perspective—that they’re doing mediation in critical stages, like a violinist on stage—it’s a helpful outlook on the training process.

“You can help somebody learn how to be nervous and still perform.

“There are people on my client list I struggle with as a mediator because I don’t get them. That’s a crisis of performance. So in training, we need to look at that perspective.

“An elite performer understands what they’re trying to move towards. So when we’re training mediators, what we’re seeing is people who may have good skills, like interviewing, but his or her intent isn’t on-task.

“It’s important to ask, what is it you want to understand about conflict as a mediator—why are you in the room? That’s critical to move from the apprentice stage to the master or artist stage.

“Skills are the ‘engine room’ of training.  As golfer Arnold Palmer said, ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get.’

This is what we need to start thinking about, as we break down the training process.

The key is to break skills into components. Move away from the role play. Instead, help your mediators build a capacity to listen, to use language differently, and to reframe.

(Reframing is the process of taking statements, questions, etc., and using different language to reflect the core beliefs expressed in a new way, using new language – and in a way that strips away the conflict, negative, or “toxic” aspects of the original statement.)

You’re aiming, through skill-building, to get to unconscious competence.

What we’re really training people to do is to work in the room with their people as themselves, rather than holding onto their process at all costs.

And remember: Once is not enough. You need to repeat the exercises, like learning to reframe. That’s the road to developing competence and eventually, mastery.

When you’re looking at integrating intention into skills, we must attend to the hours of real practice.


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  1. […] a word, it’s a way of life.’In some ways, all of the above could be referred to as “changing the dance of conflict.” The old adage that it “takes two to Tango” applies world-threatening conflicts as much as […]

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