How Mediation Tames the Amygdala

June 1, 2011

1239462564NZZ6aROne 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, as well in situations involving anger, messages of danger are sent to the amygdala, which in turn triggers the “fight or flight” response. This response prepares our body for danger by increasing our blood pressure, tightening our muscles, and adjusting our breathing so that it becomes shallower. In addition, digestion is interrupted and blood flow is diverted to the center of the body. While this “fight or flight” response is necessary when we are in physical danger, it is an unhelpful response when we are in conflict but not in danger. In this agitated state it is difficult to reason and calmly handle a dispute.

Various aspects of the mediation process help the parties to a dispute avoid this “fight or flight” response. The first aspect of mediation that defuses the tension caused by a dispute is that mediation takes place in a comfortable 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. The introductory remarks are designed to not only inform the parties of the mediation structure, but also to create a safe and comfortable environment for the mediation. As they learn about 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. In addition, mediators urge the parties to avoid inflammatory language, and most parties comply with that admonition. As the mediation continues, other aspects of the mediation process also act to minimize the parties’ anger and frustration. For example, a good mediator listens closely to the parties’ statements about the history of the dispute, repeats them back, and validates the parties’ concerns. Surprisingly, just the act of being listened to has a calming effect on the parties.

Another important aspect of the mediation that defuses tension is that the mediator helps the parties move away from fixed positions and in the direction of underlying interests. For example, a buyer and seller with a long history are in a dispute. The seller claims that the buyer owes him $50,000 on a contract and demands that amount in a mediation. The buyer claims that she owes only $40,000 since the product purchased was partially defective. If the parties focus only on their positions, they might have trouble reaching agreement. However, if they focus on their interests – the seller’s interest in his reputation, the buyer’s interest in obtaining a good product, their mutual interests in a continuing good relationship – they might be able to come up with a mutually agreeable solution.

In sum, a good mediator creates a calm and supportive environment that leads the parties away from antagonistic behavior and towards cooperation, and in doing so inhibits the work of the amygdala!

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: