Traditional Mediation Tools Explained by Neuroscience

Mediators have many tools for facilitating an effective mediation. Neuroscience shows how our actions are influenced by stress hormones released when we perceive threats. Understanding the physiological stress response and its triggers helps us see why these traditional tools are effective.


1. Building Trust and Rapport: The stress response is triggered when threats outweigh resources for handling the threats. Building trust and rapport between mediator and party helps reduce stress in two ways. Parties who have had an opportunity to build trust with the mediator will be more receptive to statements by the mediator and less likely to view them as threats. Also, a trusted mediator becomes a resource helping parties feel more confident in the face of challenges arising throughout the mediation. For example, aggressive statements by other parties or attorneys will be less threatening when a party sees the mediator as a resource.

2. Increasing a Sense of Control: Mediation events will be perceived as less threatening and will be less likely to trigger the stress response if the party feels a sense of control. This sense of control comes from understanding the mediation process and understanding that self-determination is the foundation of mediation. Mediators can explain the process at many different stages of the mediation, but a recent empirical study at Chicago’s Center for Conflict Resolution found that parties are particularly open to hearing about the process in Early Caucus – a short caucus with each side before joint session begins.

3. Modeling Calm Behavior: Moods and emotions are contagious and the demeanor of the mediator helps set the tone for all participants. A mediator that directly models calm conversation can counteract aggressive and threatening events and decrease stress triggers for the parties.

4. Using Neutral Status: Parties subject to repeated stressors have elevated cortisol levels and this enhances their perception of anger. Mediators have long recognized the impact of reactive devaluation where a party devalues an offer that comes from an adversary. This barrier to settlement is heightened in the presence of high cortisol levels that enhance the perception of anger. It can be counteracted if offers are transmitted as a suggestion from the mediator rather than as originating with the opposing party.

— Jill Tanz

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