Your Brain on Conflict

the brain; credit: A Health Blog, from Flickr, labeled for reuse

NEWSLETTER EDITION: FEBRUARY 2017

This month I’m delighted to feature a guest article by my colleague and friend Gloria K. Vanderhorst, Ph.D.  I asked Gloria to write a piece about what happens in our brains when we experience conflict.

Your Brain on Conflict

You are heading for a mediation session about a workplace issue and you know it will be tense. Your heart is racing a bit and you take some deep breaths to calm your nerves and prepare to stay in control. The outcome of this mediation is important to you and you do not want to lose control.  Then you walk into the conference room and see your nemesis. Somewhere inside a switch is flipped and your fury is about to burst into the room.[1]

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Is It Ever OK to Blame?

NEWSLETTER EDITION: NOVEMBER 2016

This election season seems to have been filled with more vitriol and blame than most. However, the election, and politics in general, also provides many excellent examples of how blame is used to keep tensions high and instigate conflict rather than resolve disagreements.

Is It Ever OK to Blame?

Blame is frequently used, whether consciously or unconsciously, in an attempt to assign responsibility for something gone awry. To blame is to “assign responsibility for a fault or wrong.” My colleague, Cinnie Noble, tweeted a thought-provoking question: “When is it alright to blame?” This article will explore in brief the nature of blame and when it’s acceptable to blame, if ever.

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The Importance of Nonverbal Communication

NEWSLETTER EDITION: OCTOBER 2016
This election season, especially the Presidential debates, has displayed many examples of the use of nonverbal body language in communication.

In many cases, body language is more important and conveys more information than verbal communication. Last month I wrote about the nonverbal vocal elements of body language: volume, pitch, inflection. This article will focus on other nonverbal aspects of body language.

One of the most common sources of conflict is misinterpretation of  communication.  Tone of voice and body language make up 93% of human communication.  While some people are unconsciously adept at reading nonverbal cues, many are not.  When your nonverbal cues don’t match with what you’re saying, you are likely to find yourself experiencing interpersonal conflict with others.

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Tone of Voice in the Workplace

NEWSLETTER EDITION: SEPTEMBER 2016

Hope you have had a safe and relaxing summer.

I write an awful lot about what we say to one another, and how it does or does not serve us in our relationships or in conflict scenarios. It behooves us, however, to remember the striking fact that only around 7% of our communication is based solely on the words we use.[1] This doesn’t mean our words don’t matter, but it does mean that when it comes down to what ultimately gets understood in a communicative event, nonverbal cues can be the determining factor. This is as true in the workplace as it is in your personal life.


Today, communication in the workplace is a major determinant of career success – which we now know is about much more than what we say around the office. This article kicks off a series on nonverbal communication in the workplace, beginning with an important topic I’ve written only briefly about before: tone of voice in the workplace.

VOICE OF INTENTIONS

The human voice communicates a great deal more than the literal content of its linguistic message. Tone of voice constitutes 38% of our communication. In fact, a great deal of meaning would generally be lost from a message if you removed the vocal component. Think of how ridiculous and funny it sounds when a recorded, robotic voice repeats a normal human sentence: the content is there, but it doesn’t really seem to mean anything.

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The Human Complexities of Succession Planning

NEWSLETTER EDITION: JUNE 2016
Since I do conflict for a living colleagues often share their stories with me. A few months ago over lunch with a CPA colleague she told me about some issues that were going on in her firm with senior partners retiring and the ensuing difficulties that she and other younger partners experienced taking over their mentors’ book of business. This month’s article is about succession planing and what can be done to make it go more smoothly.
“Succession planning” is one of those terms that reflects the rational and systematic approach many of  us hope to achieve in the business world or the public sector: an elegant solution to the fact that all of our collective endeavors must occur at the messy intersections of time, biology, and individual life paths. It’s a wonderful tool, but when the best and brightest start counting and timing and planning their way through the messiness, things can get lost along the way. What seemed like an elegant plan can begin to break down into tension and malfunction.

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The Mindful Mediator

NEWSLETTER EDITION: OCTOBER 2015

We all strive to develop practices that help us become better leaders, better practitioners, better team members. And given that so many of these goals rest on interpersonal relationships, this means developing practices to navigate misunderstandings, diverging viewpoints and, inevitably, conflict.

Mindfulness can be a crucial mental tool for handling interpersonal interactions, but this term has become so popular that it’s not always clear what it entails. In this newsletter I explore the role of mindfulness in conflict, and how a mindful mediator can change the tide of a conflict.


Today “mindfulness” has become a mainstream meme for dealing with the hectic fray of modernity while still trying to cultivate some inner peace and meaning in our lives. From The Huffington post’s “3rd Metric” page, to mindfulness trainings at work, to the yoga studios popping up all over our communities, we are being encouraged to address the physical and mental fallout from lives lived on the run by being more mindful. Conflict, too, we often say, will benefit from a mindful approach – it’s a word that admittedly shows up frequently in my posts. But mindfulness can’t be tacked on to the end of a to-do list or scheduled in like an extra Bikram class. Changing a situation through mindfulness requires altering your approach while the scenario plays out. This is not a small challenge – especially when tensions run high. [Read more…]

Your Mind’s Secret Skew: Exploring Implicit Bias

NEWSLETTER EDITION: September 2015

I hope you’ve had a wonderful summer, and found some time to relax with your friends or family in the sun and heat. As we turn the corner into autumn, it’s time to recalibrate to new rhythms and schedules, and maybe new projects, ideas, or colleagues.

Perhaps this shift is a good time to reflect for a moment and consider the hidden biases that we all carry with us in our interactions with the people we encounter in our lives. Harvard research from the past decade has revealed that the vast majority of us see people through lenses of prejudice or bias that we don’t consciously recognize. Even more befuddling, it appears most of us can’t necessarily predict our own biases when we try. This newsletter explores the concept of implicit bias, what we can do to counteract it, and what it means for mediation.


 

Many of us are aware of the destructive patterns of bias and discrimination that we have inherited from earlier configurations of this society. And on a broad spectrum, many of us have every genuine intention of disengaging from those destructive behaviors and building an increasingly egalitarian world. But in their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard and Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington are telling us that those good intentions may not be enough. Not enough, anyway, to upset the staying power of this persistent hangover of institutionalized discrimination and prejudice that seems to plague our society. That, it seems, will take some more intentional effort. [Read more…]

Meditations on Mediations: Looking back on a year of challenging cases

NEWSLETTER EDITION: MARCH 2015

As I write this a few crocuses have poked their heads out of the sodden soil but the forsythia, a harbinger of spring me is not yet in bloom! This winter just doesn’t want to let go !

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This month’s article is a reflection of some of my recent cases and lessons learned.


Last year was a breakthrough year on many fronts for Alternative Resolutions, LLC. We developed new strategic partnerships and grew our client base.   We were fortunate to have the opportunity to handle some interesting and challenging mediation cases. In this blog post I want to summarize a few of these cases, and reflect upon lessons learned. Looking back on my experiences provides a window into the process of mediation: its strategies, difficulties, and benefits. Since mediation is confidential I have altered some facts in the case summaries to protect this private and confidential process.

There were various factors at play that made some cases this year challenging. The disputants’ status and reputation within their organization were an issue in a handful of cases. Post-traumatic stress disorder was a factor in several cases, requiring careful and sensitive management. In some matters parties had equivalent amounts of power, whereas in others one party was responsible to the other, who was a high level manager. As I describe in my post on conflict climate, interpersonal communication is ultimately a collaborative task, and this kind of institutional power imbalance can add an extra layer of complexity to a dialogue.

What are some lessons that can be learned and shared? To reflect appropriately I turned to a book by Michael Lang and Alison Taylor titled The Making of a Mediator: Developing Artistry in Practice. [1] Lang and Taylor pose that “to attain artistry requires three essential elements: practice skills, theoretical knowledge and the ability to make useful and appropriate connections between theory and practice.”[2] Reflection, then, is the process by which practitioners integrate these three elements. It occurs both during the mediation and afterwards, as the practitioner dissects and analyzes the case. The authors then describe that there are six hallmarks of artistry in professional mediation practice: attention to detail, curiosity, exploration and discovery, developing and testing formulations, interpretation, and patience and vision.[3] In the case discussion below I have explored how these benchmarks played a role in my work and in determining the outcomes that were achieved. [Read more…]

Cultures of Peace: Is it cliche?

Newsletter Edition: February 2015 

In light of recent tragic world events in France and the Middle East I thought it was timely to write about cultures of peace, a phrase we’ve been seeing in many different contexts.

What is a culture of peace?

If you look up the phrase “culture of peace” in any online search engine, it is likely to spit out a long list of varied and disparate results. Environmentalists, musicians, educators, activists, and mediators (myself included now, of course), all have resources online explaining how their work relates to realizing cultures of peace. But what is this broad maxim?

First of all, what is meant by peace? This is a terribly complicated question. If we poll the hive, the first line of the Wikipedia entry on peace reads “Peace is an occurrence of harmony characterized by lack of violence, conflict behaviors and the freedom from fear of violence.” This is a good place to start, but then it gets more complicated. Does peace mean we don’t want any conflict at all? That’s a problematic notion. In conflict resolution we often emphasize that conflict is a part of all societies, and when managed mindfully, it can be healthy, important, and productive (in businesses and organizations, for example). To think through “peace,” especially from a conflict resolution perspective, it’s helpful to turn to the idea of “nonviolence,” which explores more concretely the ways in which conflict becomes harmful and begins to threaten “peace.”

Once the ideal of “peace” or “nonviolence” is outlined, there are many approaches to its realization. A “politics of peace” might be understood as attempting to structure policies of governance in a way that promotes as limited harm as possible to all. Mediation and conflict resolution might be seen as “peace strategies,” emphasizing the active and procedural elements of peace, and employing particular formations of interpersonal peace “making” or “building.” A “culture of peace,” then, implies another angle. It suggests that collective habits, consciousness, and normative practices of interaction can inhibit or contribute to peace – and also that we can learn and choose which kind we prefer. [Read more…]