8403 Colesville Rd., Suite 1100
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Your Brain on Conflict

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell


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]

What is your brain doing?

We come into the world with a brain that is prepared to serve as our moral compass. The insula is a small part deep in the center of our brain that will automatically react to our world to discern unpleasant and pleasant sensations. This ability at higher levels enables us to discern five kinds of moral intuition: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. You can imagine that your brain is sensing and processing hundreds of data points in the room and your demeanor and tone in negotiations is being influenced by this data. You are also bringing a history of interactions into the mediation room and these can get in the way of being completely present for the current mediation session.

What happens when you feel threatened?

When we feel threatened, our brain moves from higher order thinking to lower order thinking. In lower order thinking our moral compass doesn’t work very well. We move from being able to use our frontal cortex to consider options to using our lower brain to seek protection through “fight/ flight/freeze.” The brain can be overwhelmed with data input, whether from an external source, such as other people talking or internal, such as the  internal dialogue in our heads.

When the brain is overwhelmed with data, the primitive mechanism of “fight/flight/freeze” is triggered. This implicit response is called low road thinking. In this mode, thoughts and feelings from the past can inject themselves into the present automatically causing us to careen off target. In the mediation this is when a mediator may suggest taking a break, getting a drink of water or going for a brief walk around the block. You may think that those suggestions are a waste of valuable time but they actually help to reset the brain. The cross lateral movement of walking enables your right and left hemisphere to come back into balance and the drink of water helps to oxygenate your brain!

How does the brain cope?

The brain is constantly taking in sensory data for us and sorting it, prioritizing it and sending it to the cerebral cortex for action and understanding. Our brains contain more than 100 billion neurons and each neuron is capable of receiving 10,000 messages per second. Imagine receiving 10,000 emails per second! Seventy percent of these connections change daily. The brain is highly plastic and one’s ability to be effective in the mediation process is dependent on accessing this plasticity. With each experience that we have a connection is formed. Each experience changes our brain moment to moment. When experiences are repeated, the connections between neurons are strengthened. As experiences repeat, more of the brain area is devoted to that experience and that part of the brain grows physically larger. When experiences are intense, the connections are powerfully wired together. We can easily think of experiences that have repeated to the point of automaticity: reading, writing, typing, bicycle riding and driving to name a few.

Now think about stress experiences: the employee who has been verbally abused by his colleague or siblings with a long negative history expect negativity each time the abusive person speaks such that he fails to hear apologies or offers of conciliation. Therefore, repetition of these positive offers will be necessary before they can be heard. The role of the mediator is to slow the communication and use repetition so that the parties in a mediation can hear these new messages.

How does one move from competition to cooperation?

The brain is wired for competition and cooperation. The anterior insula is a region of the brain deep in the fold between the temporal cortex and the prefrontal cortex. This area has been observed through fMRI to be active when a person is feeling competitive. What we are interested in knowing is how this competitive part of ourselves is triggered during a negotiation. In a mediation, two people must either cooperate and gain equally or compete and gain advantage over the other. Studies show that gaining advantage is more salient than cooperating, especially for men. For either sex, when one person senses that they are being treated unfairly or are at an unfair advantage, their response is powerfully negative.

Decisions to trust others are enhanced by oxytocin, which may dampen the fear of betrayal by suppressing amygdala activity. The question is how to increase oxytocin in a mediation. Increasing oxytocin in clients is a good idea if we want people to be more cooperative and trusting in negotiations. Oxytocin functions to reduce adrenaline, thereby reducing the fear response of “fight/flight/freeze”.

The mediator has access to some powerful tools for increasing oxytocin: gentle touch, mentalizing cooperation, images of cooperation and even some foods such as chocolate, cheese, nuts, olives and avocados. Touch enables the brain to process acceptance through the largest organ in the body: the skin. Stories of successful mediations and conflict resolutions can help the clients to image their own situation with a mutually satisfying outcome. A round table and pictures of cooperative interactions can also increase the probability of a cooperative outcome. If you have ever wondered why every collaborative negotiation has food in the center of the table, now you know. Our brains are wired for mutual cooperation and the mediator who understands how the brain works can be instrumental in helping us get there.

[1] Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain.  Ethan Krossa, Marc G. Bermana , Walter Mischelb , Edward E. Smith, and Tor D. Wagerd, PNAS | April 12, 2011 | vol. 108 | no. 15 | 6275


Dr. Vanderhorst is a psychologist in private practice in the Washington, DC area who specializes in working with couples and individuals.  Her 30+ years of experience and training have taught her that positive change is possible at any point in life.





Author: Ellen Kandell

Leave a Reply