The Psychology of Mediation

1239462564NZZ6aRAs brain science appears more and more frequently in the popular media (see, for example, this Slate article) many in the conflict resolution field find themselves fascinated with how brain science can be relevant to the art of conflict resolution. Below, I offer some specific examples of brain science, and brain science research, and discuss how this science may relate to mediation and conflict resolution.

The role of the amygdala is particularly relevant to conflict. To understand the amygdala, it is important to understand the amygdala’s role in our brain. It acts as a sentinel, scanning our environment for danger. If it senses a threat to our survival, it triggers a rush of hormones and messages to our body — what is commonly called the “fight or flight” response. When we receive this response, our rational thought decreases, our heart rate goes up and we receive energy to our limbs, so that we are ready to fight, freeze or flee. This system has been important to the survival of our species, allowing us to escape some of the dangers of the wild. What is critical in conflict, however, is that the amygdala acts the same way when the threat is emotional — such as when someone is rude or disrespectful; our rational thought decreases and we fixate on the threat. This can cause us to do or say things we may later regret, and can lead to conflict.

Various aspects of the mediation process help the parties to a dispute avoid this “fight or flight” response. For example, most mediations take place in a comfortable, relaxed environment. Unlike litigating parties who meet in a tension filled courtroom, mediation parties meet in an informal setting – usually a simple conference room. In addition, the mediator’s introductory remarks play a key role in defusing tension. As the mediator explains the process, the ground rules, and the goals of the mediation, most mediating parties find that they are less “charged up” than they were at the start of the dispute. As the mediation continues, and the parties explain their view of the conflict, tension is often reduced. In addition, a good mediator listens closely to the parties’ statements, repeats them back, and validates the parties’ concerns. Surprisingly, just the act of being listened to has a calming effect on the parties.

Some interesting brain science research reported in Elaine Fox’s Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, involves the question of anxiety and the brain. According to Fox, among individuals who report having high levels of anxiety, the amygdala reacts more quickly and strongly; in addition, the inhibitory centers of the brain — the parts of the brain that calm the amygdala — are slower to respond. In pre-mediation sessions, mediators may wish to assess the anxiety levels of clients so that they can be prepared to take steps to calm high anxiety clients, and avoid, or minimize “fight or flight” reactions during the mediation.

Another significant area of research involves the practice of mindfulness meditation. Research in this area demonstrates positive changes in brain activity that occur as a result of this kind of meditation. In Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, practitioners learn to focus on their breathing and to be aware of and observe their immediate physical sensations as well as thoughts and perceptions. While practicing mindfulness meditation, practitioners pay attention to their thoughts as though from a distance and then bring their attention back to their breathing. Research on MBSR has shown that people who have undergone the 8 week MBSR training show increased activity in the portion of the brain that dampens the amygdala response. As Fox notes, “Neuroscience ha[s] confirmed what the Buddha himself had proposed: that labeling our feelings and treating them as nothing more than objects of attention can encourage a sense of detachment from negative experiences.”

Related research on post-trauma therapy is consistent with the notion that labeling and naming feelings may help individuals detach from painful experiences. A traditional form of post-trauma therapy asks the trauma victim to discuss the details of their traumatic experience shortly after the experience. According to Harvard researcher Richard McNally, “Most studies show that individuals who receive debriefing fare no better than those who do not receive debriefing.” Instead, a more recent protocol, developed by James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, has been found to be more effective. Under this protocol, people who have experienced a traumatic event are told to wait a month before addressing the trauma. Then, over the course of 4 evenings, they are told to write about the event for one-half hour and re-imagine the event from a third-party point of view. In other words, they are asked to write about the event not from their own point of view, but from the point of view of an outsider.

Both the MBSR research and the Pennebaker protocol, suggest that helping mediation parties see the events that led to the conflict through a detached lens — a third party point of view — might be effective, and might help defuse conflicts. Whether this is done through limiting the time the parties have to tell their own story, or through asking parties to tell their stories from a third party’s point of view, may be something to explore. At the very least, it is something for mediators to consider.

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Have you ever noticed that only one letter separates the words, “mediation” and “meditation”? When I first noticed this I wondered about the etymology of the words and whether there were common roots. Though I love languages, I am not a Latin scholar. Upon looking up the etymology of both words I found out that the word, “mediate” comes from the Latin, “medius” which means “middle,” whereas the word, “meditate” comes from the Latin, “meditari” which means “to ponder.” Thus, the close spelling does not reflect related meanings.

Nonetheless, as someone who practices both mediation and meditation, I find it interesting that in spite of the different meanings, there is a subtle commonality between the two practices. For example, the process of meditating requires one to step away from one’s thoughts — one’s ego, in fact – as one seeks a place of universal calm and awareness. Similarly, as a mediator, in order to avoid bias, one must also step away from the self into a kind of detachment, so as to better understand the positions and perspectives of the parties.

It turns out then, that though the two words are not related in terms of etymology, the skills developed in meditation can be very helpful in mediation. For this reason, then, I will continue to connect the two words in my mind.

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Mediation and Forgiveness

June 1, 2011

Not all mediations require one party to forgive the other, yet in some mediations an apology on one side and forgiveness on the other, can play an important role in resolving the dispute. To gain insight into the role of forgiveness in mediation, I recently read Fred Luskin’s book, Forgive for Good. Luskin is the […]

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How Mediation Tames the Amygdala

June 1, 2011

One of the reasons that mediation can be an effective tool for resolving disputes is that it acts to moderate the negative effects of anger on a person’s ability to effectively handle a dispute. Research has shown that when people are angry, a portion of the brain called the “amygdala” is affected. In dangerous situations, […]

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