Food for Thought: A course on mindful negotiation and mediation

One of the aspects of mediation that I find most fascinating is the insights it provides into human psychology.   Working out what is driving a party; considering the dynamics between two parties at a negotiation table; determining the best way to structure an offer so that it is persuasive: the mediation process is intrinsically linked with a need to understand how people think and how to influence others.

Therefore I was really pleased to attend a training course on Mindful Negotiation and Mediation run by Francois Bogacz and Jeremy Lack from the International Mediation Institute which looked at the way that understanding neurological processes can impact upon mediation.  Over the one day course, we looked at the way the brain responds to certain stimuli and how this can be used to positive effect within a mediation setting.  Although there were a few revelations that were a little unnerving, (eg. that if we drink a warm liquid whilst talking to someone we are more likely to view them as warm and friendly whilst we will feel the opposite if we drink an iced drink seeing the person as cold and unapproachable!) most of the session was presented in the manner of a longer more reflective process rather than individual tips.

The major point about thinking about neurological processes was that it allows a mediator to come at a different perspective as to why something isn’t working.  There are several reasons a mediator may think of for why a party may not be willing to consider a proposal by the other side (the offer’s too low; the party is unengaged in the process; there are other issues which aren’t being mentioned) but it’s less likely that the mediator will have considered that a party’s brain glucose level is down or that the party’s neurological functioning is currently focussed on a reflex as opposed to reflective response.

So what sort of techniques can be used to improve a party’s neurological response? There were several, but one I found particularly interesting was the use of priming techniques to introduce positive concepts of reaching solution at an early stage.  There were all sorts of ways of encouraging this, including word usage and using analysis tools on the parties.  I especially liked the suggestion of encouraging collective experiences between the groups (e.g. having meals together if possible) as a way of encouraging unity.   Thinking back across the mediations that I have observed, this would have been impossible in some of them (without resorting to plastic cutlery and a heavy security presence) but there were many where this might have worked well and even been welcomed by the parties. The neurological and psychological basis for doing this is clear, we tend to feel more empathetic and in-group with those we eat with, but there is also a clear aid to negotiation in this in that it helps ease positive feelings towards groups.

The course also gave me pause for further reflection after the course about what we are willing to do when we work with others and our aversion to psychological processes?  We all know the benefit of eating together when creating a business opportunity – taking a client out to lunch is standard business practice- so why do we feel so adverse to doing this with a party that we’re in dispute with?  Is it because we associate having a meal with someone as a positive act and we don’t want to have to eat with someone we don’t like? Perhaps we feel like we are lying by having a meal with someone we disagree with. This can also feel like manipulation as if one side is buttering the other up deliberately to influence a deal.  However, is this really the case?  In fact, all one is doing is agreeing to eat with another (in a similar way to agreeing to mediate) and the fact that a positive aspect of this experience is that it makes a party feel more convivial and open to the other’s side suggestion of an offer is a positive thing.  Whilst we may find psychological tools have a hint of the underhand when you actually analyse them they are much more positive and helpful.  All in all, I found the course gave me some extremely useful alternative techniques for working with parties in mediation and left me mindful of the power of psychology.

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