Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I learned this week that even though research has shown for about 20 years that grief counseling does not work–in fact it increases the stress levels of those being counseled–we haven’t given up on the practice. In a lecture at the ABA Dispute Resolution Conference, Professor John Medina explained how grief counseling as traditionally practiced, which involves asking the traumatized victims to recount their experiences shortly after the traumatizing event, can cause these victims to enter into a vicious cycle of rumination on the event and their part in it that does not help them recover. In fact, it can leave affected persons even more impaired.
Jim Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas developed a more sophisticated variant of grief counseling, in which victims are asked to wait three weeks, and then engage in writing down a description of the event on successive days. The waiting period is designed to take advantage of the natural process by which unpleasant memories can fade. And in the process of writing a story about the traumatic event, the critical instruction, which apparently makes all the difference, is to view the event as if from the disinterested eye of a neutral observer or cameraman. After doing that, stress levels and other harmful physical and mental effects from the trauma, pretty consistently go down, often close to baseline levels.
This research seems to have obvious implications for conflict resolution, though these implications have apparently never been studied or proven. We know that the traditional litigation process, and even mediation the way it is often practiced, causes participants to experience anew the negative effects of the original perceived injury, and even gives them the opportunity to receive and inflict new injuries on opposing parties. The grief counseling studies suggest that this kind of repetition of trauma is detrimental to reducing stress and other emotions that have been stirred up by conflict, emotions that need to be addressed before conflict can be resolved. We also know that one goal of mediation is to help parties view conflict more objectively, and even to learn to understand the opposing party’s point of view to some extent. All of that suggests that simply asking parties to “vent” their anger or other feelings about the opposing party may be harmful to the process of resolving conflict. On the other hand, helping parties talk about the underlying events in a more objective manner may help them arrive at a more rational state conducive to resolving the dispute.
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would do the research that might help to prove what works and what doesn’t, so that eventually we stop doing, over and over, the things that are unhelpful?