What is it that makes mediation such an effective process for so many disputes? Why do so many long-running conflicts reach a solution in a day of mediation? Is there some sort of magic in what the mediator does?

At the start of a mediation day, I frequently remind parties that the mediator is not a magician and that no metaphorical rabbit will be produced out of any metaphorical hat. And yet, I am also able to say that, in the vast majority of instances, parties will reach a resolution on the mediation day or shortly after, even where they are apparently deeply entrenched or have been fighting for a considerable length of time. I also mention that it may feel like wading through treacle to get there!

There are probably many explanations. However, a recent seminar conducted by Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, author of Conflict in Relationships, threw some light on this for me. Much has been written about the human brain in recent times. Eolene reminded us that the brain has two components, the limbic brain, which developed as homo sapiens dealt with primitive conditions and learned the importance of fight or flight. Later, the neo-cortex, the more rational part of the brain, was formed. But the two were – and are – not united. Our emotions could still override logic, especially under pressure. We are not Mr Spock.

I recall reading a book some years ago by Arthur Koestler, entitled Janus, in which he made this very point about the brain. In that context, he was writing about our ability to live as if the threat of nuclear war did not exist. Recent writing, such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, emphasises the importance of the unconscious mind and its dominance in our decision-making over the more rational, conscious self. Research showing that humans tend to be disproportionately optimistic about the outcome of events, as reviewed on BBC’s Horizon programme recently, all seems consistent.

We are reminded here too of the Black Swan theory as developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in which he explains the disproportionate role of high-impact, hard-to-predict and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance and technology and the psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty.

Eolene Boyd-MacMillan’s thesis is that we need to find ways for the neo-cortex and the limbic brain to cooperate. Creativity depends, she says, on the union of things maintained separately. More generally, dealing with differences requires us to work with differing or opposing viewpoints. Tension is essential but we need to avoid polarisation and embrace collaboration. Conflict is natural – it’s how we deal with it that matters.

Eolene considers ways by which this can be done. As one physical response, she recommends deep breathing in order to slow down the fast-reacting limbic brain when it perceives threats. By way of example, meditation is helpful.

For me, this is a breakthrough moment. We have laughed for years at jokes confusing mediation with meditation. But here’s the point. What mediation offers is a process in which parties who would (or have) otherwise reacted adversely to each other–and who have tended angrily to confront each other, or who fear passive capitulation or who avoid addressing issues altogether–are helped to engage, within a structure.

The structure serves initially to slow down the speed of that engagement, to allow things to be said, heard and really understood. It enables acknowledgement, explanation and mutual recognition to be achieved. Often, this could not happen without the involvement of a trusted, independent third party. And it takes time, like wading through treacle. It requires the power of the pause.

The whole point of mediation at this stage is arguably to override (or at least channel) the anger and emotion generated by the limbic brain, which could impede any progress towards resolution  – and which probably has done so for months or years already (sometimes aided by the adversarial system of litigation?). It also enables parties to face up, realistically, to risk, uncertainty and the adverse effects of undue optimism. The prospects of success often need to be viewed through a different lens at this stage. 

Then, having helped parties to gain understanding and (often) a different perspective, the good mediator will help them to work creatively, harnessing both the emotions and the rational brain in a structured way to help them to look at possible solutions. Differences will remain but the parties nearly always acquire a sense of forward-looking purpose. Paradoxically, when this works well, the process speeds up and we are often all surprised by the short time it takes to reach a conclusion which is viewed as realistic and optimal in all the circumstances.

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