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Emotional Disputes

Emotional Disputes

How should a mediator deal with a dispute where emotions are running high?



Full Transcript

I’m trying to go through some of these . . . Sure. You know, that’s been an area where there’s been an awful lot of interesting neurological research, one of which says . . . you know, we often think they are two different processes, that they even reside in two different parts of the brain, but in fact, emotions aren’t located in one part of the brain. They kind of work throughout the brain.


Logic doesn’t work without emotions. The work of Antonio Damasio, who’s a neuroscientist, he’s written a lot of books, but one of which is called “Descartes’ Error”, has done these studies with people where the part of their brain that processed emotions was damaged, and found that people could still be totally rational . . . For example, I [inaudible 00:33:09] say, “Do you want to go out to an Italian restaurant or an Indian restaurant tonight?”


You could do the pros and cons of each, but you couldn’t make a decision. You need access to your emotions to apply your logic to the real world, and emotions need access to logic in order to also be able to help guide us through the world. And emotions are a guide. Logic is a guide. They’re an integrated guide.


So when somebody says to you, “All right. Let’s keep the emotions down here.” or “Let’s just be rational,” they’re basically saying, “I want the rationality that I attach my emotions to, to prevail.” In fact, what we’re trying to do is bring emotions and rationality together on the table in a productive way.


So what is the real problem with somebody being emotional? Is it that they use it as a . . . No. Let me take that back.


Is if it is used in a way that shuts down conversation. It shuts down interaction. You want emotions to come onto the table, to be used effectively. Sometimes it might have an immediate conversation-stopping effect. But for the long-term effect of it to be to help people engage with what’s really going on, both for themselves and for others.


A lot of times, I think, what mediators think is that first you deal with the emotions, and then you can be rational. Sometimes I think you first deal with the high-level of emotional energy, so then you can integrate it more. But you’re always trying to help people do both.


So watch somebody trying to make a decision as to whether to accept an offer, whether you’re a negotiator or a mediator or whatever. It is not a simple, rational process, even if they think it is. Their emotions are very much at work.


So just thinking about, in that scenario, someone struggling to make a decision, you say, “Hold on a second. Let me just get a bit of flip-chart paper out and whip together a decision tree for you. That should help.”


Well, and it might. But it might also be important to say, “Well, let me do this,” lay it out, and then say, “So how do you feel when you’re looking at that?” which is a very different question, of course, than, “What do you think?”


I think one of the best tools we can use is to use feeling words about what we think our rational processes and rational words around what we think are feeling processes.


So for example, when you get really upset about something, and I say to you, “Okay. Why don’t you explain to me what’s going on that’s upset you so much.” That is a very rational question about a very emotional process. When someone makes an offer, I think it’s often very helpful to say, “I want you to think about that, and after you’ve thought about it for a while, tell me what you feel about it and about what they have to say.”


What have we done? We’ve asked people to change their thinking and that’s very valuable. There’s lots of evidence, neurologically, that it is. But we have to overcome people’s thinking that one’s emotional and the other’s rational.

About the mediator

Bernie Mayer Profile Pic

Bernie Mayer, Ph.D. is Professor of Dispute Resolution at The Werner Institute, Creighton University. He is without doubt a leader in the field of conflict resolution. Considered by many in the field of conflict resolution as an icon, Bernie has over a quarter century of experience in the field and was a founding partner at CDR Associates, the internationally recognized mediation and conflict resolution organization. Bernie originally trained as ... View Mediator