“She’s Lying…” Notes from ILCRG Peer Consultation Group
By Ann McBroom
King County Interlocal Conflict Resolution Group
About 20 people attended our most recent Peer Consultation to explore strategies about mediating when parties have wildly divergent memories of past events. Perhaps one of the parties is intentionally describing the situation in a way that she knows is untrue. What are the potential motivations? In the work place, employees are usually trying to protect themselves or another co-worker. More often than not, both parties believe with a great deal of certainty that their perception of the past is correct – and– they want validation from the mediator. Why does this happen?
The brain is amazingly complex. A number of fascinating books offer some insights into the way memory, particularly memories of events, work. We like to think that our thoughts evolve in the rational part of the brain (the neo-cortex) and have some degree of objectivity. The studies show that thefeeling of knowing, the sense of certainty,actually originates in the emotional part of the brain (the limbic system). The limbic system also stores memory. When an event occurs, especially a traumatic or emotional event, much of the processing occurs in the limbic system. Neurons connect to otherneurons, new sensory input is compared to past input, and only after a great deal of unconscious processing is the input filtered into consciousness. The limbic system willfilter out and store information that is not perceived as immediately relevant to the conscious mind.
In addition, the brain is hardwired to look for patterns and predictability. In the limbic system, when a prediction is accurate, a tiny bit of dopamine is transmitted to the reward center in the brain. Wow! It feels good! So, in a sense, the brain is constantly searching for certainty.
So what can mediators do when faced with the certainty that the parties bring to the table? First of all, we must manage our own filters, both conscious and unconscious,and remember that it is not our place to determine whose account is more accurate or plausible. We have the same tendency as the parties to want certainty and that tendency may trigger a desire to reduce the ambiguity associated with the two different accounts of the same event. In addition, we must be conscious and intentional in our actions, choosing strategies that either help the parties reconcile their different perceptions or move forward in spite of them. Here are some of the strategies that our mediators tried on during the recent peer consultation:
♦ Find some common ground to build on. That may mean finding shared interests, shared understanding of words and phrases, or shared history that is not in dispute.
♦ Conversely, help the parties specify where they disagree and explore the assumptions beneath the disagreement. One table group considered looking for something concrete in the room that the parties disagree on and use it as a jumping off point to talk about how different perceptions are formed and filtered.
♦ Explore the meaning of words, especially language that is hyperbolic. Probe for detail and description in order to help diffuse the strong emotion attached to the narrative. (Words are connected to conscious thought and generated in the neo-cortex, so thorough exploration of word meaning will re-engage the neo-cortex.)
♦ Explore the intent and impact, particularly how past events are impacting the current situation. For example, is the past event affecting the way parties are currently communicating or working together?
♦ Explore circumstances in a way that broadens the memory to include other less volatile memories.
♦ Do all of the above cautiously, and use caucus when challenging a person’s memories because they may be deeply attached to the feeling of certainty that their narrative protects.
For some really great reading on how the brain works, try “How We Decide”
by Jonah Lehrer and “On Being Certain” by Robert Burton.