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Language, Emotion and Neurophysiology in Conflict Resolution

Language, Emotion and Neurophysiology in Conflict Resolution

When I first started I thought to myself wouldn’t it be amazing if one day I could interview Ken Cloke. That day has come and the interview exceeded my expectations and believe me when I say they were already high.

In this interview Ken explores the interplay between language, emotion and the neurophysiology of conflict. The insights, strategies and wisdom shared in this interview are priceless. Ken’s latest book ‘The Dance of Opposites’ has just been released so you’ll also get a great insight into this work of art. Yes, I’m a big fan!

If you’re new to mediation then stop whatever you’re doing and watch this interview now.

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Full Transcript

Aled Davies: Hi, everyone. My name is Aled Davies, founder of, home of the passionate mediator. This is the place where mediators, aspiring, new and accomplished, come and learn from experienced mediators, practitioners and thought leaders from around the world.

The mediators we interview are incredibly generous with their time. They share their knowledge, their wisdom with you, so that you can learn and grow and improve your effectiveness and hopefully be inspired, go out into the big world, build your own success story, make a difference, leave a legacy and maybe then come back onto Mediator Academy and share your story with my audience.

In this interview, I’m going to be curious about the interplay between psychology and conflict resolution. I want to understand more about conflict stories and the kinds of interventions we can make to help transform conflict stories.

I’ll also be exploring use of language and how it polarises parties and how we mediators can intervene in ways that bring parties together, and, I hope, lots more.

Now, my guest today needs no introduction but he’s going to get one anyway. He’s mediated conflicts and taught the dispute resolution in over 20 countries and is an internationally-recognised speaker and published author of many journal articles and several outstanding books. His latest book, ‘The Dance of Opposites’ has just been released, and no doubt we’ll be talking about this.

He is currently an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, Harvard University School of Law and Amsterdam University’s Institute on Dispute Resolution. He is the key founder and leader of Mediators beyond Borders, an organisation dedicated to building local skills for peace and promoting mediation worldwide.

As Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution he’s served as a mediator, arbitrator, attorney, coach, consultant, facilitator, trainer. You name it, this guy’s done it, and I feel incredibly privileged to welcome Ken Cloke [SP] onto Mediator Academy today.

Ken, welcome.

Cloke: Thank you so much, Aled. Very nice.

Aled: Oh, well, look, I said a moment ago it’s a big day for me today. It’s also a big day for Mediator Academy. When I started this thing a couple of years ago, I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if one day I’ll be able to invite and get Ken to come onto Mediator Academy and do an interview, and here you are, and I almost cocked the whole thing up.

Ken: How perfect.

Aled: How perfect. You very generously rescheduled this interview after I messed the dates up, and you know what? I think that’s the kind of guy you are. For me, you’re the personification of generosity and compassion. You continue to give so much to the field of mediation. I just want to acknowledge that right at the outset. Okay?

Ken: Thank you.

Aled: At the get-go. Now, I’ve read your books, your articles, and whenever I take any of them up – and they’re like my Bible. They’re my key reference materials when it comes to mediation. I’ll be looking for something, I’m searching for something, and, before I know it, I’ve consumed a chapter of your work, and I’ve got to put the book down, because I’m full. There’s so many thoughts going around in my mind. They get distracted. I’ve been trying to wrestle with the idea of why that is, and I’ve come to the conclusion, it’s something to do with the ideas that you share, which I find inspiring. I find them profound, but it’s also the language that you use to communicate those thoughts and ideas. It’s almost in every word and every sentence there is gold, and you talk about language doesn’t reflect the deeper meanings we attach and experience in conflict. And yet it’s the medium that we all, as mediators, predominantly used to help others resolve conflicts, develop understanding and so on.

What can we learn as mediators about language that can improve our effectiveness when we’re helping others?

Ken: Very nice. Well, first of all, thank you very much for inviting me to be with you into this conversation, and thank you very much for the very kind words that you have used to describe the work that I believe unites all of us.

I think I’d begin with two basic ideas. The first is, the experience of conflict takes place on a level far below the level of language. So, every word is a kind of failure, an imprecise struggle to find some way of communicating what is actually taking place beneath the surface.

Secondly, every word is a kind of expression of hope, because it is an effort, against all odds, to bridge the gap that separates us as human beings. So, every word that I write I struggle for and I think about and I try to fashion in a way that allows it to get as close as I can get. Which is not always exactly right on, but as close as I can get to whatever it is that my experience has led me to believe is true for people.

So, here is the difficulty with language. On the one hand, it is a little arrow pointing directly at what you want the other person to understand, and, on the other hand, it’s an obfuscation, it’s a camouflage, it’s a diversion, and the reason has to do with the psychology that you are describing, and that is, when we’re talking about conflict, we’re talking about two things simultaneously. One is the desire to be understood and the other is the fear of loss.

So, in any conflict conversation, there is some level of fear associated with the danger that this conversation could slip out of control, the danger that it could actually move you into an arena in which the things that you have taken for granted, all of a sudden, begin to disappear. The relationship that you love, all of a sudden now, no longer has to exist, because you’ve asked questions about it that give it permission to go somewhere else.

So, here’s kind of where we begin, but there’s a deeper level, and this is the part that it took me years to try to figure out at a simple enough level to be able to feel that I was onto something because it was so simple, and here’s basically what it is. Every conflict conversation has three basic components. Component one, there is a pronoun. What is the pronoun? The pronoun is generally ‘you’ or ‘they’ or ‘he’ or ‘she.’ If you use the word ‘you’ in connection with a problem, the form that it takes is an accusation.

Aled: Right.

Ken: What you’re going to get when you make an accusation, automatically, inevitably, predictably, is a denial and a counter accusation. So, ‘You are whatever’ – your response will be, ‘No I’m not,’ and ‘You’re something else’.

So, there are three other possibilities, at least. One is to use the pronoun ‘it.’

Aled: Okay.

Ken: In which case, we have describe an object. The second is the pronoun ‘I.’ In which case, it’s either a confession or a request. Third is the pronoun ‘we.’

Second, there’s a verb. The verb is ‘You are,’ or ‘You did.’ If you say ‘You are,’ that’s a judgment that is permanent, and we’ll always be resistant.

The third is the most complicated, and that is the accusation itself. So, what is an accusation? If you break it down into its component parts, it consists of three things. First, there is an indirect negative statement of interests. So, for example, if I say ‘You are lazy.’ what are the interests that I’m describing? Well, ‘I’m working very hard. You’re not working very hard, and I would like some assistance,’ but I haven’t put it that way, because that’s a positive and direct statement, and I’m disguising it for reason which I’ll come to an a moment.

Second, there is an indirect negative presentation of emotion, and that is, ‘I am presenting this in a negative way, primarily because I would like you to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of this communication. I could describe it to you, but that would take a while and it would require me to be introspective, and it’s not necessarily going to be effective. So, instead, what I like to do is give you an authentic experience of what it feels like to be insulted, to be disrespected, by being disrespectful to you.’

Finally, the deepest part of this is that there is some deep relational fear, and, generally, what that boils down to is ‘You don’t like me. You don’t respect me. You don’t love me.’ and the corollary, which is, ‘I’m not worthy of your respect and I’m unlovable.’

So, now, we can see that, contained within any conflict statement are three things, each one of which can be reversed in several ways. So, the pronoun can be shifted from ‘You’ or ‘He or she or ‘They’ to ‘It’ or ‘I’ or ‘We,’ and the verb can be shifted to something that was done. Then you can reverse these three statements by making positive statements of interests, positive statements of emotion, that is what it is that you want, what you like, what you prefer, as opposed to what you don’t like or hate.

Finally, you can recognise that beneath all of this is some desire for a better relationship with the other person. So, to me, this is sort of quite beautiful and filled with potential for technique.

Aled: Yes. Yes. It’s never been explained to me in that way before, but, actually, it’s almost like being able to identify a particular pattern, and it’s almost formulaic…

Ken: Yes.

Aled: …and, therefore . . .

Ken: That’s how I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be mathematical, essentially. So, I’ve actually, in ‘The Dance of Opposites,’ figured out a couple of little symbolic ways of showing it, so that you could distill it down to a kind of mathematical formula.

Aled: Genius. Genius. So, I’m mediating. I have a party that points at the other person and says, ‘You are lazy.’ Now, I could reframe that. So, I could change the pronoun to – you know, I could pose a question, ‘Are you,’ the verb, ‘frustrated because you don’t feel supported?’

Ken: Yes. Perfect. Perfect reframe. But now, beneath the surface of this, we discover that something-, you’ve just been given a cue, a little tiny hint about something that is taking place at a deep psychological level.

Here’s why. Is there a positive description that you can use for someone you’re describing as ‘lazy’? Well, the answer is ‘yes.’ They’re ‘relaxed, carefree, without stress,’ all of those things. So, you’ve chosen the negative word for a reason. Why? Well, now we can see that the word that you have used as an insult is actually like a little trail of breadcrumbs reading back into your subconscious mind.

So, what is going on for you? Here’s the translation of ‘You are lazy.’ ‘I’m working really hard here, and you aren’t, and I would like to take time off, but I don’t give myself permission to do so. So, when I see you taking time off, it actually presents me with my own failure as a human being to look out for myself. But instead of my owning that, I’m going to blame you for it.’

So, what you get is something very, very deep, which is desire to not work so hard yourself or desire for the relationship with the other person, which has nothing to do with the work or with being lazy. It has to do with the fact that you’d like to be doing it together. It would just be a lot more fun.

So, this is just a small example, and there are lots of possibilities that grow out of it, but we can imagine others . . .

Aled: Yes.

Ken: . . . that are very similar.

Aled: So, really, understanding how language is used in that way and also appreciating that it goes a lot deeper . . . You know, one word like ‘lazy’, it’s such a complex, it’s so complex, what’s kind of beneath it.

Ken: Yes. Here’s the interesting piece. You said that you were interested in psychology and emotion, and there are a couple of relatively simple steps that explain why it’s essential that all of us be interested in psychology and in emotion, and we can get there very, very simply just by asking ‘What is a conflict? What are the indispensable elements that define a conflict?’ and, if you think about this a little bit, you discover that there are a minimum of three.

First, there have to be two or more people or two or more sides of the same person. Second, there has to be some disagreement or difference between them. But, if you have two or more people, you don’t have to have a conflict unless you have, and you won’t have one, unless you have a disagreement, and, if you have two or more people who have disagreement, you also will not not have a conflict unless something else is present, and the ‘something else’ that is always present, that distinguishes conflicts from disagreements, is the presence of negative emotion.

Therefore, every conflict has an emotional component.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: Therefore, as mediators, we have to pay attention to what is happening with emotion. We have to learn from psychology, essentially.

Aled: When you say ‘negative emotion,’ what would distinguish negative emotion?

Ken: It’s a shorthand, actually, and it’s imprecise, and it’s not a very useful term, to tell the truth. But it’s what we think of as negative emotions because they don’t feel good.

Aled: Okay. Emotions that don’t feel good.

Ken: That’s all.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: Yes. That’s a simple way of describing it.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: They also don’t feel good either internally or externally. Nobody likes them. They’re not pleasant. They’re actually stress-producing, but the truth is that every emotion exists along a kind of-, how would you describe it? A range. So, anger is just one place that you can define along a line that extends from mild irritation to homicidal rage.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: The precise place where this turns into something negative is very difficult to find, but here’s the key to understanding anger, in my view. Very simply it is, nobody gets angry over things they don’t care about, therefore, anger is always about caring. What it actually is is a way of communicating to someone that you care very deeply about this. But it is complex, because anger is also push away, meaning, ‘Give me some space,’ and anger is also ‘Hold on’. So, it’s a way of actually holding onto another person.

There are a lot of different ways of describing anger, and it’s important to try to figure out what the person is really trying to achieve through their anger. Yes. Go ahead.

Aled: So, if we we’re with a party and they seem angry, they’re raising their voice, they’re red in the face, thumping the table, we might assume that they haven’t quite reached a homicidal rage just yet, maybe a few degrees off that. Although, they could also just be irritated. So, how do we identify that and why is it important for us to identify that?

Ken: Well, it’s important for us to have a sense of approximately-, really, of how they move from one thing to another, and it is possible, in the midst of their rage to ask a very simple question that will take them out of it. Which is just ‘Why do you care so deeply about this?’ and when they’re answering that question, they’re actually shifting from the part of their brain in which their anger is being organised, into the part of their brain that is actually trying to describe what it is that they really care about, or, very simply, you can say, ‘It sounds like you care a lot about this. Can you tell me why?’

Aled: What a question.

Ken: Yes. It’s a very powerful question, but the most important thing about anger is that, for the most part, it’s superficial. It’s not the deepest emotion. Here’s the example that I like to use the most, because it’s easiest to grasp, is to assume that you have a small child and your child is gone out into the middle of the street and there are cars whizzing past. So, you run out into the street and you grab your child and you drag your child back to the sidewalk. Now you’re about to say something to your child, and you’re going to speak in an angry tone of voice.

But it turns out that there’s a very rigorous, almost mathematical logic, to you’re doing that, and it’s basically this. One, ‘You just did something dangerous.’ Two, ‘You were not hurt as a result of doing that dangerous thing.’ Therefore, three, ‘You might do it again.’ So four, ‘I’m going to attach a little pain to what you just did by yelling at you so that’, five, ‘when you think of going in the street again, you remember the pain I caused you and stay on the sidewalk.’

But, now, the reason why that’s important is because there’s another question you can ask, which is this, immediately before you yell at your child and used anger, what were you feeling?

Aled: Love.

Ken: Huh?

Aled: Love [inaudible 23:10].

Ken: Well, immediately before, you were feeling fear.

Aled: Concern, fear. Yes.

Ken: Yes. Yes. Because your child is in the middle of the street and you’re frightened. But you can’t respond to your child out of fear, in that moment, because that’s not going to keep your child out of the street, and that’s your goal. But, to recognise that beneath anger is fear.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: How often? Often enough to entitle you to ask a question. ‘What are you afraid will happen when someone is angry?’ And that will drop them into the place of fear, and if fear is actually beneath their anger, they will go there, but that isn’t even the deepest place, because, ‘What are you afraid of?’ And the answer is, ‘You’re afraid that something terrible will happen to your child, and how will you feel?’ The emotion that is underneath fear is the perception of the possibility of grief and loss and pain and guilt.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: That’s deeper than the fear, and the fear is deeper than the anger, and why would you feel grief and loss and pain and guilt if something happened to your child? And now we’re at the place that you described.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: Because you love them.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: So, we’ve got four entirely different conversations that can take place.

Aled: Gosh.

Ken: So, now, this is really beautiful, because, in every conflict situation, there is something similar that takes place. Each one is a little bit different. So, you can’t automatically just plug in anger, fear, pain, love. But it is always the case, in my experience, that beneath anger is caring about something, about someone, and, together with the caring, some difficulty in expressing it, either because trust has been broken or because the person has insulted you and it will feel like you’re condoning the way that they’re treating you. You’re just being a doormat or something, and you need to stick up for yourself, or whatever it might happen to be.

But the point is that the anger is instrumental. It’s designed to achieve a goal, and once we understand the goal – which I try to understand, at least, from the inside out. That’s the rÙle of empathy.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: It’s for me to see the parent with the child yelling and saying, ‘What would make me do that?’ and then really following it meticulously down to a place where I feel like, ‘Yes. This is it.’ And now we can see that, actually, what you’re trying to get to, through your expression of anger at the other person, is a conversation about what you care about.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: But it’s the wrong way to get there.

Aled: Yes. The intervention that you just described there, it’s just a beautiful intervention, and so much thought, I’m imagining so much thought has gone into this, and I’m left feeling a bit – I wouldn’t say ‘inadequate,’ but I’m thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. What else should I know in terms of intervening, in terms of understanding emotion, in terms of understanding the layers of emotionality?’

Ken: Yes. Well, it’s a lifetime’s work, really, but here’s the interesting part. If it’s true, you recognise it, and, once you recognise it, you can get there yourself, without me or without my ideas even. So, really, I’m making this up, all of this up, because . . .

Aled: Oh, don’t say that.

Ken: . . . basically, it just feels right. All that I’m doing is just examining what it feels like and continuing to question what it feels like inside of me.

Aled: But I can relate to exactly what you’re saying. I can imagine my son or my daughter – I can imagine responding in that way, and now I’ve got a really, really good excuse, now, ‘Listen. The reason I shouted was . . . ‘

Ken: Yes. Well, this is exactly right. So, here are the four conversations. ‘Don’t you dare do that again. That scared the heck out of me. If anything bad happened to you, I would feel awful.’ and ‘I love you so much I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.’ Ultimately, what you need to do is to get to that last conversation, and you won’t do it at the time, because, if you want to get them out of the street, by all means, yell at them, but you’re not going to yell at them while they’re in the street, because that’s going to freeze them.

Aled: So, I sense we’re segueing conveniently into this territory of stories here.

Ken: Yes.

Aled: Right?

Ken: Yes.

Aled: You know, because you’re talking about the four different conversations, and the conversation at the bottom, where you’re talking about, ‘I love you very much,’ Is our aim, our purpose as mediators, to try to take the conversation to that fourth story, to that fourth level or to a deeper level?

Ken: Let me say that a slightly different way. The purpose of conflict resolution, I think, is to give people a complete experience of their emotion. But the complete experience of anger, in this case, isn’t anger. It actually has to go to these deeper levels, in order to be just complete, done, over. So, the story is something that we create in order to repair the fabric of our perceived reality.

It’s a construct, and if you watch people create stories – it’s especially useful to watch children create stories, because they really create them carefully, and everybody tells a story with the audience in mind. So, it’s a little bit like the way they describe, in school, teaching to the test. You are trying to enroll the listener in your story, and what, therefore, is the form of the story? Well, we start with the fact that everybody in conflict feels bad about what they have experienced and would like a little sympathy. Then, we have to add in the fact that you don’t get sympathy if you have power over your situation. If you’re responsible for causing it. Therefore, every conflict story is one that is told about someone who has done something wrong to you, and you are innocent and powerless in the face of this ogre or dragon or evil person.

So, you can see that you’ve got three basic characters. We have a triangle. So, at the apex of the triangle is the storyteller who is, essentially, a princess, telling a story about a dragon to someone who they hope will be their knight in shining armour, and that’s the basic form of the story.

So, . . .

Aled: Does that have a parallel with the drama triangle?

Ken: Yes. Absolutely. It’s the same thing, . . .

Aled: Right. Okay.

Ken: . . . exactly the same, and it’s the victim-rescuer-perpetrator triangle. So, you can see that the triangle is actually very useful, because it’s very stable, but now we can make it more complex by creating a kind of reverse, upside down triangle on top of it, kind of like a Jewish star. Right?

Aled: Yes.

Ken: So, at the top, you have the princess, and then the question is ‘What separates the Princess from the others?’ sort of ‘What is the line, like this?’ and the answer is really in another question, ‘What does the Princess stand for in the story?’

Aled: Right.

Ken: And the answer is innocence, vulnerability, goodness, purity of heart. Right?

Aled: Right.

Ken: Well, is there anybody who isn’t somehow a little bit innocent and a little vulnerable and has someplace in their heart that is pure? I think everybody has something like that.

Then, secondly, what separates the rescuer? Determination, courage in the face of adversity, sort of heroic mentality, and all of those are positive things that we can find in ourselves and in other people, as well.

Then, the final and most difficult part of that reverse triangle asks ‘What is it that the dragon has or the wicked witch or the ogre?’ and the answer is all about we think of as the negative emotions, rage, jealousy, hatred. What separates the dragon is we have decided that the dragon is responsible for the conflict, but, truthfully, is there anybody who hasn’t been a wicked witch at some point in their life?

Aled: Yes.

Ken: So, we can all take responsibility, in other words, for what we have done in the conflict, and now we can see that there are, out of this triangle, three opposite lines of force heading to the centre.

So, if you’re the hero, that is the mediator, the line of force is ‘I’m not going to rescue you. We’re going to do this together.’

Aled: Okay.

Ken: And the line from the princess can be found with a question to the princess, ‘Have you done anything, either by action or inaction, that has made this conflict worse?’ and the line going to the dragon is, ‘Can’t we extend empathy, even for the one who has done something terrible, something harmful?’ and that’s redemption and restorative justice, come out of that last question.

Aled: Right.

Ken: So, the idea of the story, then, is to take out the demonisation, to take out the victimisation and to take out the externalisation of the rescuing part of it and see that it’s all of us, together. It’s just us here. We’re all a little bit princess, knight in shining armour and dragon.

But stories are actually way more complex than that, and, in the new book, ‘The Dance of Opposites,’ I describe this a little bit, starting with-, there you go.

Aled: Do you have a copy at hand there? Because this is just . . .

Ken: I do. Yes. Just one second. Hold on.

Aled: Okay.

Look at that library. Wow.

Ken: Okay.

Aled: Oh. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ken: You see?

Aled: It’s a beautiful thing, Ken.

Ken: Thank you. Well, all my babies look beautiful.

So, here’s an example that’s given in the book.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: The very first conflict story, Adam and Eve in the garden, and they have eaten the fruit of the tree, and what happens? Do you remember what happens next?

Aled: No. Go on.

Ken: Okay. So, the very first thing that happens is God speaks and says to Adam, ‘Did you eat of the fruit of the tree?’ and of course, he’s supposed to be omniscient, but he asks the question, and Adam says . . . Do you remember Adam’s answer?

Aled: ‘Who, me? Moi?’

Ken: Yes. Adam says, ‘The woman you gave me tempted me, and I ate from the fruit.’ So, not only is it ‘She is the one who did it,’ but ‘You’re the one who gave her to me. So, you’re to blame too.’

Aled: Okay. No sense of contribution to this.

Ken: No. No. Or responsibility, . . .

Aled: Yes.

Ken: . . . and, of course, then, God goes to Eve and says, ‘Is this right?’ and Eve says, ‘Well, the snake tempted me,’ and, again, this is the garden that God created, so, it’s somehow, it’s always somebody else’s fault. So, the point of this is, the fall has already happened. You don’t need anything else. You’ve already left Eden, and the reason is because the story is designed to defend ourselves against blame, and responsibility and blame are fundamentally different.

The purpose of blame is simply to create a scapegoat, back to biblical imagery, to have somebody who’s fault it is, so that we are off the hook. But, truthfully, fault isn’t helpful, blaming isn’t helpful in trying to solve a problem. What we have to do, basically, is to say, ‘It’s our problem,’ and, until we do that, we aren’t able to solve it.

So, if we take global warming, or whatever . . . Yes.

Aled: Well, I was going to say . . .

Ken: Go ahead.

Aled: . . . I think it’s an experience a lot of mediators-, I can certainly relate to, when I hear accusations and blame in a mediation, how to intervene in a way that invites the parties to reflect on their contribution. But I often pause before I say anything, because I think, ‘I feel like I’m judging them now.’

Ken: Yes.

Aled: I have a sense . . .

Ken: Perfect.

Aled: . . . are going to hear this as a judgment, so I can’t . . . And then, I’ve missed the moment. I mean, what . . .

Ken: Well, this is actually the perfect moment, . . .

Aled: Go on.

Ken: . . . and the reason it’s perfect is because there are two truths that you have realised, one, that you’re onto something, and two, ‘This is really dangerous and I could blow it here, because I could lose them if I don’t present this in a really skillful way,’ . . .

Aled: That’s it.

Ken: . . . and that is the gateway to your improvement, in terms of your skill, to find the way that is a way that will not lose them but will, at the same time, bring them face-to-face with the truth of this, which is that there is something that they have contributed.

You could always ask this question, but it is sometimes going to backfire, and the question is, ‘What have you contributed, through action or inaction, to this conflict? Is there anything that you have contributed?’ but that isn’t really going to, necessarily, do it, and the person will feel blamed, because they’re blaming themselves. It doesn’t have to come from you. It comes from inside of them.

Another kind of milder form of that is, ‘With 2020 hindsight, what would you do differently?’
But, there’s actually a positive way of expressing it, which is completely different, and that is, instead of focusing on who caused it, who started it or whose fault it is, to instead focus on what it would take to actually fix it completely and perfectly, and that is to shift into ‘How you would like to resolve it.’

For example, ‘What are the words that you would use to describe the kind of relationship that you would most like to have of each other?’ That doesn’t sound like it’s responsive to the blaming, but I can tell you that if you ask that question, they’ll shift out of blaming and they’ll start thinking about positive words to describe what they want from the other person, and now there are two more interventions that you can make, based on that.

So, first, ‘What are the words that you would use to describe your relationship or the kind of relationship you most want to have with the other person?’ Follow-up question to the other person, ‘Do you disagree with any of those words? No? Then we’ve reached consensus, and what words would you use and do you disagree with any of those words? No? Again, we have consensus.’

Now, here’s where ‘the rubber hits the road,’ as we say.

Aled: Yes.

Ken: After you’ve reached that consensus, you can ask this question, ‘Are you prepared, both of you, right now, to begin living up to those words, in this conversation that we’re going to have right now?’

And they will say, ‘Yes.’

Then, ‘Do any of us have permission to stop the conversation if it isn’t working?’

And they will say ‘Yes.’

‘Great. Let’s start.’

Aled: Yes.

Ken: Now you’ve left the blaming behind and you’re really focusing on the positive elements that they want from each other.

Aled: So, you’ve done something or you said something a couple of times now, which makes me think that you’re referring to some kind of neuro-scientific-, because you’re talking about . . . The example earlier about dropping out of anger into activating a different part of the brain that starts thinking more positive thoughts, more compassionate, generosity of spirit thoughts, and you mentioned it again or you kind of – you’re encouraging or inviting them to activate a different part of their brain. Have I got that right?

Ken: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Aled: Could you say a bit more about that?

Ken: Sure. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Bringing Oxytocin into the Room: The Neurophysiology of Conflict,’ and it’s a summary of maybe 100 neurophysiology experiments, and all of the things that we have learned so far. There’s a revolution, of course, taking place in neurophysiology. It turns out that there are various ways in which the emotions are processed inside the brain.

The first thing to know is what happens when the emotional processing centers of the brain are completely shut down as a result of stroke, for example.

Aled: Right.

Ken: And the question is, ‘What can’t people do any more?’ and the answer is ‘They can’t make decisions. Even simple ones, like what kind of car to buy, because the that means ‘What kind of car do you like?’ and that’s part of emotional processing. Every prioritisation is using the emotional centres of the brain.

But, then, it turns out that there are two circuits. There is the fight-or-flight reflex circuit, which is mediated by the amygdala, which means ‘almond,’ and it’s a little – there are two little places in the brain, right about here, little pods that stick out, and, at the tip of those, are the amygdali, and those go directly to the adrenal glands, which pump out adrenaline and get you ready for flight or fight.

The second is the oxytocin circuit, which is a… there’s a lot of research about it. It’s described as the bonding chemical. It increases trust, but there are other elements of this, as well. It’s not just those elements. There are ways of accessing the way that we process information in the brain.

Probably the best book that’s been written about this – two books, actually – one is by Leonard Mlodinow, called ‘Subliminal,’ and the other is by Daniel Kahneman, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’

Aled: Okay.

Ken: And they’re brilliant pieces of work about priming just the language that we use.

So, we know that people will negotiate more collaboratively, for example, if they’re seated in soft chairs that if they’re seated in hard chairs. If we use expressions like ‘We expect there will be a positive outcome, that you’re both going to act more respectfully’. If you use the word ‘respectfully’ in your conversation, you are actually neuro-physiologically priming people to behave more respectfully towards each other.

Aled: Really?

Ken: Yes. There are lots of experiments like this that shows . . .

Aled: Fantastic.

Ken: Yes. Or using the word ‘rude’ actually primes people to behave a little bit more rudely.

Hold on one second. Sorry about that.

Aled: That’s okay. It’s probably Obama trying to get a hold of you, is it?

Ken: Yes. I wish. So, that’s about neurophysiology and that’s a chapter in the book for people who are interested. There’s a lot that’s being written about it now and a lot of experiments that are taking place they are wonderful.

Rebecca Saxe at Yale is doing brilliant work on dialogue and the neurophysiology of dialogue.

Aled: Wow. Fascinating. I mean, when you say ‘soft chairs,’ I always say ‘Never underestimate the importance of thinking about your environment,’ and I did a mediation last year where-, it was in a bank, and they offered me a typical sort of standard conferencing room, and it didn’t have any windows, and it was really formal, and I thought, ‘Yes. I quite like . . . ‘ and they ended up giving me this client entertainment suite. They found another room in the bank for me, and I’m not kidding you, there were just very low-down, relaxed sofas. The lighting, you could… and both parties walked in and they looked at each other and looked at me and said, ‘What’s this?’ And I just said, ‘Hey, you know, I think it will make the conversations flow better and easier for you and create a more relaxed, informal . . . ‘ and they went, ‘Okay,’ and it was. It was quite laid back and relaxed. So, never underestimate.

But using the word ‘respectfully’ . . . So, I’m coming back to language. Language is so important, Ken, how we can use language, the words that we use to bring parties closer together. This is just a minefield. Not a minefield. That’s the wrong kind of metaphor, but it can be a minefield, but also it can be a . . .

Ken: A gold mine?

Aled: A gold mine or an orchard up with rich . . .

Ken: Oh, nice.

Aled: . . . rich soil and lots of fruits growing, and we haven’t even touched on metaphor, but that’s for another day, Ken, because I’m aware the time is moving on. You’ve been really, really generous so far, with your time.

It just got one question I wanted to close with.

Ken: Sure.

Aled: I know you’re incredibly passionate about developing this field, strengthening international collaboration, building bridges across disciplines, improving mediator effectiveness. What one, maybe two, pieces of advice could you offer me and anyone watching this interview, what could we prioritise? What should we be prioritising in order to kind of develop our thinking, to sharpen our skills, to hone our craft as a mediator?

Ken: Great question. Let me think about this for a second.

Aled: I know you’ve probably got a list of about 273 things. Right?

Ken: No, but the beauty is to try to boil it down to a couple of things. I would say the very first thing is to recognise that, whatever level that you are at, there is something that you can give to someone else who needs it desperately and who can use it. There someone you can teach, and there’s someone you can learn from.

So, to consider yourself a lifelong learner and to give everything away, everything that you have. There’s was a wonderful interview with Jean Cocteau, many years ago, in which the interviewer said, ‘If there were a fire in your apartment, what would you save?’ and he said, ‘Why the fire, of course.’ So, that’s the second piece, to find a place of passion inside of you, which I recognise in you, and to follow your passion.

Aled: Ken Cloke, this is been a real privilege, again. Ken, if people want to find out more about the book, where’s the best place for them to do that?

Ken: They can do it at Amazon, of course, and also the publisher is Good Media Press in Dallas, Texas.

Aled: Okay. I imagine if they buy directly from you, they don’t pay a huge commission to Amazon or no?

Ken: Probably yes, but the shipping gets to be complex if we’re talking about going international. So, Amazon in England would probably be cheaper.

Aled: Okay. All right. Super. Well, Ken, I’m going to put all this information below the interview, and I know people are going to want to reach out just to say thank you. I know you’re on Twitter and LinkedIn and other forums, but I’m going to be the first one to say ‘thank you.’ Ken Cloke, thank you very much.

Ken: Thank you, so much Aled. It has been my pleasure. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

Aled: Thanks Ken.

About the mediator

Ken Cloke Mediator

Kenneth Cloke is Director of the Center for Dispute Resolution and a mediator, arbitrator, attorney, coach, consultant, and trainer, specializing in communication, negotiation, and resolving complex multi-party disputes, including marital, divorce, family, community, grievance and workplace disputes, collective bargaining negotiations, organizational and school conflicts, sexual harassment, discrimination, and public policy disputes; and designin... View Mediator