Mirror Neurons & Mediation Advice

At the Works-in-Progress conference this past week at Arizona State University (great job Art!), I had the pleasure of hearing from Professor Scott Hughes on his latest work on mirror neurons.  I have blogged about mirror neurons before and the impact on people.  It explains things from why Harley rides are pleasurable to why Starbucks runs smoothly. 

Scott took the next step regarding dispute resolution and discussed how the latest findings in neurobiology can help mediators be more effective.  If the goal of the mediator is to build the relationship and trust with the parties, then, Scott argues, mirroring the physical movements and the emotions of the parties can help do this.  As many of us noted, we already “know” this when we teach mediator skills.  We talk about “modeling” the behavior of the parties and watching body language. 

Marty Latz raised a good question asking whether knowing about mirror neurons and its impact would allow the more manipulative among us to take advantage of others.   I had two thoughts about this.  First, my guess is that, like flattery, even if we know mirroring someone can be manipulative, it will still work.  And, second, good salespeople and other professional negotiators probably know this already intuitively.  This is just the science explaining why what we already do is effective.

For lawyers, this research could also be useful in working with clients and realizing that mirroring their behavior in interviews and counseling will help improve the relationship between them and their clients.

5 thoughts on “Mirror Neurons & Mediation Advice”

  1. Mirror neurons seem like an interesting tool for the mediator. But are they a “tool” or a natural byproduct of the right mediation environment? If they are considered the former, than I believe that manipulation through the use of mirror neurons may be possible. But I gather that the beauty of the phenomenon is that it occurs naturally/automatically. In that case, I don’t expect it would be as easy for a person to manipulate the effect to her advantage because the mirroring would feel “forced”.

    I think that the best a mediator could hope for is to foster an environment in which mirror neurons are likely to occur. Or, just conduct her mediation at Starbucks…

  2. After reading this, I remembered an article I read in some science magazine about a year or two ago that discussed how “mirror neurons” could finally be directly identified in humans. I tried to find the article again, but no luck. Anyway, I remember being surprised about the very recent excitement over this concept. Certainly, we, as humans, have long known about the concept of mirroring and recognized its value (or at least a small part of its potential value) to the development of human life (just think about your undergrad psych 101 class). That it wasn’t until relatively recently that scientists found direct biological evidence of individual neurons in humans was surprising to me. But, it certainly seems that scientists are not letting up on learning more as recent studies have considered the importance of “mirror neurons” to anything from being able to empathize with others, to the ability to be aware of one’s self, to the emergence of language generally, as well as to the use of abstract reasoning. Considering this in light of Alternative Dispute Resolution, I understand the value that this science has to the mediation process, as mirroring in that sense is not just certain set of neurons firing, but instead is a process to be learned. And certainly good mediators can take advantage of biology on this point. But I also think it is interesting to consider the role mirror neurons could play in people engaged in other forms of dispute resolution. Professor Schneider pointed out that mirroring may help us develop better relationships with our clients, but could such an approach also help build a better rapport with, say, opposing counsel? And would someone really want to engage in that type of behavior given the adversarial nature of litigation? Could relationships with different types of adjudicators be influenced through employing certain mirroring techniques? Could it go so far as to shape outcomes? How far does neurobiology take us? How much are we able to control?

  3. With regard to mirror neurons: Of course, I go to Starbucks regularly; anyone in a morning class with me will see me nursing a “venti” until noon. Having been a barista myself at one point, I can appreciate the ability to smile, say hello, and remember the especial drink of the regular customer, all the while making latte after glorious latte. By the way, the baristas at the Fox Point Starbucks have a particular talent for that.

    On one of those mornings, a few weeks ago, I arrived at Marquette at 7:00 am, “venti” in hand, for the Marquette University Law School Representation in Mediation Intramural Competition. This is one of the only competitions that 1Ls may participate in, and a good number of them expressed interest. Many of them also expressed doubt and uncertainty, having had little to no experience with mediation. And I can appreciate those feelings as well, having walked in to the same competition last year, as clueless as a. . . well, as clueless as the 1L that I was. The only thing I knew for sure is that I had to dress “like a lawyer.” BATNA? What is a BATNA? Or was it BANTA? Was that in the rules? Where is my coffee?

    In an effort to relieve this pre-competition anxiety, the Client Skills Board and the faculty advisors came up with a remedy; we held a brief mediation orientation. We spent a Friday evening giving interested students a two-hour overview of the process of mediation, how to do an opening statement, what a representation plan is, and what a BATNA is. We had them watch a mock mediation. And we tried to inject a bit of comfort and familiarity with the mediation process into the 1L anxiety. The one thing we didn’t do was have the students try a practice mediation. And even though it was a Friday evening, many students attended, and walked out with more information and more confidence than they had walked in with.

    Many of the 1Ls who were there that evening had also volunteered their time to scrimmage with the ABA Regional Negotiation Competition teams. That is where I think mirror neurons went to work. The 1Ls had no other frame of reference besides the regional teams. They had no choice but to model their behavior after the regional team players’ behavior – after all, when I don’t know how to do something, I mimic the actions of the person next to me (e.g. Julia Roberts, in “Pretty Woman,” learning how to eat escargot). And I think that may have resulted in a greater comfort with the process than did the orientation session. Not because there was more information, or instruction; on the contrary. But because the students were facing a more experienced team – literally facing them, face-to-face – they were able to see how the team members behaved, how they spoke to each other, and how they spoke to the other team. And they were able to react instantly with similar speech, actions, and expressions.

    That all of this was occurring in a non-threatening, noncompetitive environment no doubt contributed to the learning experience by allowing the students more freedom of speech and movement. No grades, no scores, no professors (other than a coach or two, evaluating the regional teams). No Socratic method, no lecture hall of students to witness the inevitable humiliation. This was two students, in a room talking with two other students.

    So next year, I think a scrimmage-sort of activity would be a great addition to the orientation session. Nothing too formal; just an opportunity for the new, less experienced students to mirror the practices of the more experienced students. An opportunity to put those mirror neurons to good use. Before you know it, the 1Ls will be smiling and drinking coffee while they are mediating.

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