The All-Powerful “Mirror” Neuron,
and What it Means for Mediators

Neurobiologists struggle every year to uncover more and more about how the human brain perceives the world, interacts with the world, and changes in response to the world.  One major discovery that scientists have recently begun studying is the effects of so-called “mirror” neurons in the brain, and how they change in the brains of those who perceive the experiences of others.

Scientists have discovered that there are neurons and indeed entire neural pathways that “fire,” or become active, both when a person actually performs an action and when someone watches someone else do that same action.  In other words, there are parts of our brain that actually go through the same electrochemical exercises when we do something and when we watch someone do that same thing.  There is a lot of speculation as to exactly what function mirror neurons serve and how they affect cognition, but some scientists have found that mirror neurons also fire both when someone goes through an experience or stressful situation and when someone watches or learns about another person going through such an experience.  Some scientists are also making the case that mirror neurons are directly related to our ability to feel empathy for others.  As someone describes their emotional state to us, our mirror neurons fire just as if we were experiencing their emotional state; thus, we are able to “relate” or “empathize” because we are literally feeling a variant of the emotion they describe!

This is pretty interesting science, but what is this have to do with mediation?  Well, mediations are stressful times, and every day mediators are repeatedly exposed to the emotional and/or stressful situations encountered by their clients.  An experienced mediator will tell you that it can be a grueling experience working through a ten-hour mediation with parties; indeed, even a short mediation can be as physically and emotionally “draining” on mediators as with clients.  Despite our best efforts to remain detached and neutral, sometimes it can feel as if we endured the same or similar stress as the parties themselves.  Mirror neurons certainly help put those experiences into perspective.  While many mediators have become adept at separating their own emotional state, mirror neurons help shed light on both how difficult – and how important – it can be for mediators to regulate their own reactions to communications with clients.  I have three tenets I follow to help myself deal with my stressors and the stressors of my clients during mediation, and mirror neurons undoubtedly play a role in each:

Tenet one: Pace yourself. If there is one thing that a mediator must learn how to do early in his or her career, it is to pace him or herself throughout what can be a long and grueling mediation.  As mediators, we cannot help but have psychological reactions to the stressors we see and hear about from parties throughout the mediation: “They told me this contract was going to be completed by January and the overages have cost us $5,000,000,” and “this is a ridiculous situation and they refuse to communicate, I feel disrespected and I don’t need this.  They make me furious.”  According to the new theories on mirror neurons, as humans we are wired to literally have neurological responses to these kinds of statements that are actually the same as if we were in the parties’ shoes ourselves.  No wonder mediations can be exhausting.  Thus, it is important to make sure we pace the mediation smoothly so that we can always maintain focus and perform at our optimum efficiency for our clients.  It is not a bad thing to take a few minutes here and there for everyone (including the mediator) to take a break, or to stop for a quick lunch mid-day or dinner mid-evening.  It is not just about food, it is about literally allowing our brains to regroup and refocus on our task as mediators after being inundated by intense stressors throughout the day.  This goes for parties too – if participants become “exhausted” or overly tired or “burned out” by a session, it may be smart to take a break.  If the mediation has gone all day, agree to meet again in the near future (perhaps the next day).

Tenet Two: Try to become adept at being “in tune” with your reactions to clients’ stress or other emotions. We are all human, and mediation is arguably one of the most “human processes” human beings can go through – all of the emotions of the human condition can be in play, depending upon the case.  Being able to “tune in” to how you internally react to clients’ stories and emotions is just as important as being able to readily listen to and understand their interests.  If it is true that mirror neurons are firing within us as we mediate with our clients and hear what they have to say, then it is important for us to be able to identify our psychological responses as best we can, and therefore be able to control how we react psychologically throughout the mediation itself.  This principle is not limited to the basic cognitive biases we may find ourselves or parties affected by during a mediation.  This principle extends and includes an understanding of how we as mediators really feel in response to the things we hear from our clients, and being able to manage our own feelings so that we can be the best neutrals possible.  Because mirror neurons literally affect our entire perception of clients and of mediations, the more aware of how we consciously “feel” during a mediation, the more we will be able to regulate our internal state and maximize our effectiveness as neutrals.

Tenet three: Develop your ability to “demonstrate” to clients reactions to stress. Clients have mirror neurons, too, which means that if we carefully listen to what they have to say – emotion-laden and all – and then react in a calm manner, they cannot help but see us react calmly, which makes parts of their brain at least “think” about “being” calm, which may actually help calm them as well.  While it is not for the mediator to determine what is an “appropriate” or “productive” response to the stressors of a case, when a client is able to calmly and clearly think as opposed to emotionally charged, there is usually a directly positive effect on the productivity of the mediation discussions.  If as mediators we are able to more-fully understand and be “in tune” with our emotional and physiological “mirror neuron” reactions to stimuli in mediation, we are then more able to manage our reactions.  Thus, we can more ably guide the reactions of other parties in the process.  Mediation sometimes calls us as professionals to dive deeply into areas of self-discovery and awareness, in order to be more effective neutrals for our clients when we reemerge.

While we as humans may never be able to fully “feel” or “know” exactly how our neural pathways are affected at any given moment, we certainly always have the opportunity to become more fully aware of what we consciously feel and how our thoughts are affected as we go along.

by Zachary Ulrich

Zachary P. Ulrich is currently a researcher for Pepperdine School of Law’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. He holds a JD, Masters in Dispute Resolution, and Masters in Psychology (Clinical). Zach is an alumnus of General Electric’s highly-esteemed Financial Management Program, where he held several financial analysis positions of increasing responsibility and completed a graduate-level education in business management and operations. He has published over twenty-five articles and commentaries on organizational conflict resolution and mediation psychology.