Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Anger and Fear Affect Our Perceptions and Our Decisions

We have all experienced levels of anger and levels of fear in mediation, and we have witnessed our clients in fear and in anger. What effects do these emotions have on us, the way we receive and communicate information, and on the way we make decisions?

Neuroscientists tell us that most of our behaviors and decisions are driven by evolution and by habit. Cognitive control originating in the pre-frontal cortex let's us direct our behaviors and make decisions to achieve longer term goals in unique situations. However, the metabolic cost is so high, we reserve this cognitive, conscious control to truly unusual situations where habit will not work so well. Without getting too technical, the right pre-frontal cortex has some ability to suppress anger and fear, but not a lot. It is quickly overwhelmed if other parts of the brain are supercharged with activity (e.g., high emotions). The ventromedial pre-frontal cortex is the seat of our value signals and is activated by the things we like. This part of the brain turns down when facing losses and turns up when facing gains.  Not surprisingly, people demonstrate a high variability of impulse control around gains and losses--some are disciplined, many are not.

How do fear and anger fit into this picture? Anger turns down the ventromedial pre-frontal cortex so that we tend to take more risks. The evolutionary biologists hypothesize that this gives us a greater perception of individual control that, in turn, gives us sufficiently more confidence to work, fight, or run our way out of difficult situations. What is even more amazing, is that we don't have to feel angry for this effect to take place. Residual effects of anger can last for hours. If your client had an angry moment with a spouse or child in the morning before the mediation, his or her ventromedial pre-frontal cortex will still be turned down at the mediation. Your client could look as cool as a cucumber, and still not have clear decision-making processing working in the brain. A great example of this is how President Obama handled negotiations with Chrysler executives one morning. Earlier, he had become angry over reports of the Air Force One flyover of Manhattan for photo-ops. He had cooled down by his late morning meeting with the Chrysler people. However, they did not walk away with the deal they wanted. It's very likely that his earlier anger made his risk assessment of a Chrysler bankruptcy different than what he might have assessed with a calmer morning.

Another effect of anger is to increase confirmation bias. This well-known distortion in decision-making says that we will tend to seek information that confirms earlier beliefs and ignore or discount information that is inconsistent fwith earlier beliefs. Anger intensifies the confirmation bias so that we cannot hear information about weaknesses in our case.

Fear, on the other hand, works much differently. Fear tends to make us overestimate risks due to a greater perception of situational control. In other words, in a fear condition, our brains tend to view the world as controlling events, not ourselves as individuals. With a lower sense of control, we tend to look at risky decisions conservatively.

Since the pre-frontal cortex is a metabolic hog, we lose self-control over fear and anger over time. Our loss of control is caused by cognitive energy depletion in the brain, and eating carbs will not boost energy right away. We have all seen tempers flare, positions become more entrenched, and cooperation flag later in the mediation. This is simply the effect of tired, energy-depleted brains.

One of the many reasons mediation is so useful is that the mediator becomes the pre-frontal cortex in the room. Mediators provide the cognitive functioning that is lost in the emotions of anger and fear and provide a functioning brain when everyone else's brains are in in low energy states. Anger and fear are normal experiences in conflict and in litigated disputes. Understand how these emotions affect perceptions and decisionmaking and you will have a greater insight into the negotiation.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Being Present with Feelings

What makes conflict so difficult? Its the feelings, stupid. Every conflict produces feelings, usually strong, and they are not happy ones. Anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, and unhappiness are most common. These feelings are too powerful to remain bottled up and will be heard one way or another. If not handled correctly, they will make healthy conversations difficult.
Many people are unaware of their feelings moment to moment. They have feelings, but really do not pay much attention to them except to experience and react to them. In conflict, this can be a liability because the reaction can be explosive. Furthermore, in an unaware state, we tend to project or blame our feelings on someone else. "You did that to me!" and now I am angry at you. Feelings very easily masquerade themselves as judgments, accusations, and attributions.
We work with feelings as peacemakers in two ways. The first way is to engage ourselves in a two or three part analysis of what we are feeling in the moment.
The two part way has us acknowledge our feeling and the unmet hope that goes with it. For example, "I am feeling sad and hoping that we can be friends again." This little trick requires us to label what we are feeling and to identify the hope that if fulfilled would make the feeling go away.
The second way slightly different. We acknowledge our feeling, then state the need that is not being met, and then make a request of the other person. For example, "I am feeling sad right now because my need for respect from you is not being met. Would you be willing to listen to me without interrupting me all the time?" Again, we acknowledge what we are feeling and put a lable on it. We identify the need that is not being met that seems to be generating the feeling. Finally, we ask for a specific action that will help meet the need. Of course, there is no guarantee that the other person will agree to our request. The fact that we have identified our feeling and need, however, goes a long ways towards honest and open communication in conflictual situations.
The great underlying secret to all of this is sincerity and authenticity. The moment you speak your "feelings" from a smarmy, insincere stance, you are doomed. If you cannot be vulnerable and honest about how you feel, the conflict will persist and probably escalate. Being vulnerable by opening up your feelings, hopes and needs, if done authentically, however, is an extremely powerful tool of de-escalation. You will also find that being vulnerable in this open, honest way gives you great power in the conflict. Try it and let me know what happens.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

It's Not About "Show Me the Money!"

So many disputes and conflicts, especially in the business world, seem to be about money. If a debt is owed, then it probably is about the money. In just about every other dispute, money may be important, but it is not driving the conflict.

Last week, I mediated a case that demonstrated this in a classic way. John (not his real name) claimed he was owed $48,000 on a contract. Bill (not his real name either), said , "No way!" They had a written contract with an attorney's fee clause. In California, that means that if you win, you have the right to ask a judge to award you your attorney's fees. By the time the case came to me for mediation, John had spent $38,000 in attorney's fees and Bill had spent $55,000 in attorney's fees. The combined fees nearly doubled the amount they were fighting over!

John demanded his full contract amount plus his attorney's fees. He was not going to "rollover" for Bill. He was owed the money fair and square, and by God, he was going to fight for every last dime. Bill, of course, believed that he didn't owe John anything and had many technical defenses to John's lawsuit. Bill wanted to be paid his attorney's fees to settle the case.

This one didn't settle. Both men were more interested in protecting their own sense of self-esteem than about the money. On a cognitive rational level, they each knew they would spend far more money with their lawyers than they would ever recover. On an emotional level, however, conceding to the other guy's demand would be an unacceptable blow to ego. Since emotions are far more powerful than cognitive rational processing, the fight was not about the money. It was about the need to be right and prove the other guy wrong.

This is a classic conflict pattern found in family disputes as well as in international conflicts. The need to protect face and boost self-esteem is fundamental in all of us. I have observed that people with a strong sense of identity and self-esteem tend not to be enmeshed in conflicts as much as others. On the other hand, those with a lesser sense of identity and lower self-esteem fight when they feel their identities are being threated.

What's really interesting is that giving someone respect costs nothing financially. Yet that can be the hardest thing to do when you feel like you are being disrespected.

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