Profound New Insights on Conflict and Client Psychology

Profound New Insights on Conflict and Client Psychology

By Zach Ulrich

As a kid I used to enjoy looking through glasses of water at the objects beyond because, depending upon the shape of the glass or the flow of the water, the images became distorted, bent, and often produced some pretty funny results. What I didn’t realize at the time was that with or without a glass in front of me, I always had a “looking glass” through which I saw the world. We all have one, and a mediator’s ability to interact with the psychologically-based “looking glasses” of clients and counsel can often spell the difference between impasse and settlement.

Luckily for mediators, the fields of social cognitive psychology and neuropsychology have made great strides in the past few years. Our understanding of how the human brain processes differently in conflict situations has greatly expanded during this time. But, unfortunately many mediators do not seem to have taken heed of these powerful discoveries, let alone tried applying them in practice. What I will do in this article is go back-and-forth between discussing the psychology of clients’ looking glasses, and identify three ways in which we as mediators can interact with that psychology. While my goal for this short piece is to focus on only three of the most commonly applicable examples of looking glasses in action, my discussion is really only the tip of the iceberg. I encourage any reader wishing to explore more deeply to peruse the “psychology” section of ADR Times, and to contact me directly at [email protected].

The Modern Psychology of Our Looking Glass

The author Philip Pullman understood the concept of looking glasses when he wrote his piece titled The Amber Spyglass, one of three in his “Dark Materials” series. In the Amber Spyglass, characters are able to literally see gateways to different worlds, but only when using the spyglass. While Pullman’s fiction alone isn’t very helpful for mediators, the metaphor is crucial: The lenses we use affect what we see. It’s when our looking glasses don’t align, when the nuanced concavities and convexities of our lenses bump one another, that conflicts occur and parties seek dispute resolution. As such, a mediator’s knowledge of the psychology underlying many clients’ perceptions of conflict, and even more importantly a mediator’s ability to interact with those psychological dynamics, is critical to any mediation process no matter your style.

First and foremost are the advances researchers have made in understanding how the brain reacts under stress. Conflicts inherently create stress for parties in several ways—they usually have indeterminate outcomes; often require a lot of time, energy, money, and thought before the mediation even occurs; and often include relationship stressors. In short, all levels of psycho-emotional functioning are often effected by conflict. While the brain’s reaction patterns to stress can vary as widely as the number of people on this planet, there are some relatively “typical” ways in which people “alter their looking glasses” in response to stress. I want to focus on one area called the “limbic system,” that is, the seat of emotion in our brain. The limbic system evolved in our brain well before the higher-level reasoning centers that separates us from other animals, but it remains an incredibly powerful influence on how we feel, think, and behave. In fact, when the limbic system is activated, parties’ looking glasses can be “distorted” so much as to make it impossible for mediators to help parties think through logical steps toward settlement. It doesn’t take long for new mediators to learn that often the difference between parties conceding enough to settle or anchoring in their offers is the emotion involved … So, what do we do? How can we as mediators interact with these strong, limbic emotions in order to increase parties’ ability to settle? It’s simpler than you might think.

1. Affect Label.

You might know what “affect” means—that the word references the immediate mood and emotional expression of a person. Well, recent studies using fMRI brain scanning technology have shown that by simply “labeling” to a person what affect they are presenting, the brain’s limbic system is immediately overridden by the parts of our brain responsible for logic, reasoning, and planning (that is, the higher-functioning cortical regions and pre-frontal cortex). Properly executed, the technique allows individuals to immediately overcome their emotional impulses and begin processing what they need to do in order to move forward through conflict.

Affect labeling may well be one of the most useful tools a mediator can have in their bag, so let me give you an example of how to use it. Let’s say you have a client who is telling you their perspective on their conflict. You note that the person appears angry, and is resentful of some of the actions of the other party. Their current “looking glass” shades their view of the situation with their anger, and their limbic system is clearly in full gear. Actively listen to the client, and then when they are done simply begin by saying, “you are angry,” in a quiet, direct tone. If the client is angry, they’ll invariably respond with a very quick, “Yes!” or something similar. If your read of their affect is slightly off, they may respond with, “No, I’m frustrated,” to which you can respond with simply, “you are frustrated,” at which point you’ll probably hear them react with the same, “yes!” Either way, you have now successfully “labeled” their affect for them, and it is probably one of the most empathic things you can do as a mediator. According to the recent fMRI studies, doing this immediately inhibits the limbic system’s ability to control their processing, and immediately re-engages their reasoning centers. Moreover, results of repeated experiments in affect labeling show that the effect is profound, and consistent across many different situations. More importantly, some mediators have begun using this technique in mediation, and it works. But why does it work? My best guess is that it is because you are literally “reflecting back” the client’s looking glass—you are letting them step back from it, treat it as an external variable to be taken into account, and move beyond it. By labeling their emotional state for them, you allow their brain to externalize that emotion, even examine it, and think of it as one more “variable” for their logic centers to think through. The client will feel immediately heard, appreciated, and understood, even if you have to “re-label” their affect when they indicate you may have misunderstood. Moreover, with regular usage of affect labeling, you’ll find that clients are much more quickly prepared to discuss how to move forward towards resolution, rather than reiterating their feelings toward the conflict.

2. Understand Compartmentalization.

The latest research in social cognitive psychology increasingly shows the great extent to which humans compartmentalize their emotions and thoughts—that is, that the way we tend to evaluate “x” is often completely different from the way we evaluate “y.” Our “looking glasses” aren’t all-encompassing, in fact our brains are programmed to “switch” looking glasses depending upon what we’re thinking about. For example, have you ever met someone who held certain standards in one arena, seemed to ignore those standards in other areas of their lives, and still seemed to think it all made sense? That’s compartmentalization in action, and our brain does it for many reasons including to protect us from our deepest fears and from having to re-evaluate our actions or sense of identity. As a result, many conflicts begin when “Party A” acts contrary to expectations that “Party B” had of them. For instance, often one party assumes the other will “act a certain way,” based on behavior in other areas. When the compartmentalization becomes apparent and Party A acts contrary to Party B’s expectations, the other party may become offended, confused, and angry, and otherwise injured because of their reliance on the other.

As mediators, it is crucial that one of the “tools” we have is our understanding of the nature of compartmentalization and how that impacts conflict. For instance, if a party explains how disappointed and angry they are that the other party “tricked them” into relying on them, we may want to listen carefully for any compartmentalized standards at work. Conversely, when talking to the other party in that same dispute, it is important for us to differentiate between the looking glass they applied in other arenas from the looking glass they used in the relationship being discussed. If we are going to build rapport with the party who feels slighted (Party B) we need to be able to understand and validate how easily they may have been mistaken as to Party A’s intentions, based on previous dealings or relationships. Perhaps more importantly, when building rapport with the other party, we need to genuinely understand that many people often apply different standards of conduct in different arenas without evaluating the incongruence, and that there very well may have been no intent to trick or deceive.

3. Encourage Explanation.

Finally, I want to emphasize an incredibly powerful piece of social psychology knowledge that some psychologists have known for several years, but that I rarely see applied in mediation: When people are asked to explain the logic of their thinking, they automatically evaluate it in their minds and test its true validity. In essence, the party’s brain actively assesses their position and their logic, usually without consciously realizing that they are doing so. Enabling parties to openly assess their stances in conflict is a powerful skill, because it allows us as mediators to help parties overcome any conscious or subconscious anxieties they may have about making concessions or otherwise being flexible. I’ve used this tool many times in mediation—when I hear party’s explain how they feel and what their positions are. My next statement is then, “so help me understand the logic of your decision to have ‘x’ position, if you don’t mind.” This statement does several things: (1) It shows interest; (2) It builds rapport; (3) It helps me clarify their thinking, but perhaps most importantly; it also (4) encourages parties to articulate the looking glass they’re using. It is important to note that the goal here is only to ensure that parties have fully and consciously considered all of the variables important to them in deciding their position, and not to pressure them into doubting themselves and risk them making unhealthy decisions. The psychology of this process implies that asking parties to explain the logic of their decisions will naturally bring about seeds of doubt—and we’ve all experience this before. It is a natural inclination to feel defensive or in need of justification when someone asks us to “explain ourselves” about a behavior or decision. As mediators, we must be careful to strike the delicate balance of actively encouraging healthy thought. Finally, for a particularly effective combination of strategies, try listening intently to a client’s emotion-laden story and then affect label, immediately followed by a question or statement gently encouraging the client to explain their logic—I’ve done this before, and the results are typically nothing short of a very impactful way of immediately establishing rapport and helping the client begin thinking about resolution.

And one final note: Human psychology is a profoundly important sub-text to all means of addressing conflict, and as the fields of neuro- and social cognitive psychology advance, so too does our ability as practitioners to influence the thinking of our clients. It is precisely because of this increasing power that it is incumbent upon us as conflict resolution experts to act with professional consideration in our employment of psychologically-based strategies and interventions. With those ethical caveats in mind, I will always encourage all conflict resolution professionals to think more creatively about learning and applying our society’s rapidly evolving knowledge of human psychology in everything we do. We have nothing to lose, and only more tenable, healthy resolutions to gain.

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