June 24, 2012. Written by Victoria Pynchon for forbes.com
Cheer up! That’s the secret revealed in the June issue of the Journal of Cognitive Therapy and Research.
It’s fine to get sad, say the social scientists who published their research in an article entitled Is Timing Everything? Sequential Effects of Rumination and Distraction on Interpersonal Problem Solving.
Just don’t brood about it.
Thinking about neutral subjects rather than negative ones for even a small period of time, said the researchers, made people better problem solvers. Stay Away from Negative Thoughts to Improve Problem Solving Ability – Medical Daily.
What Does This Mean for Negotiators?
When you’re dealing with conflict – with a business partner, employee, employer, customer, parent, spouse, or children – the tendency to avoid or suppress conflict generally leads to resentments. And resentment invariably leads to brooding that can last days, years, decades, even entire lifetimes.
Because fear, anger, and depression all interfere with the brain’s executive functioning, mediators who deal with conflict for a living are taught that the most important first step in helping the parties resolve their disputes is to create an atmosphere of hope and safety.
As I explain in my book, Success as a Mediator for Dummies, one of the best ways to instill a sense of hope and safety is to treat the mediation as a collaborative effort to solve a problem that typically arises between well-meaning people rather than a contest over which person was right and which was wrong.
Negotiation experts and professional mediators alike call this strategy “separating the people from the problem,” which is not always easy to do. The most effective way to accomplish that goal is to focus on a mutually profitable future rather than a contentious and unproductive past.
On the next page are three tactics that should help you get started.
Engaging in small talk prior to a problem-solving sit down helps the parties see one another as fellow human beings with common interests and shared challenges. Any topic will do – even the weather.
Children and grandchildren are good small-talk topics because nearly everyone has one (or many) and even those who don’t have nieces, nephews and friends who struggle with the sometimes difficult but rewarding task of raising young people.
My favorite example of small talk breaking pre-existing stereotypes that were interfering with problem solving occurred during a mediation between a mobile home dealer and a gay couple who were suing the dealership under California’s lemon law.
Once I got the parties into the room with one another and introduced everyone, I casually mentioned that both the dealer and one of the buyers had been in the service during the Vietnam War. That sparked a conversation revealing that the two had been in Saigon the same summer and a friendly bond was instantly created, breaking impasse only half an hour later.
Assist the parties in normalizing the behavior they’ve interpreted as being wrong, evil, manipulative, or in bad faith.
Behaviors that appear malicious on the surface may seem less so when you understand what someone’s presumed adversary was thinking or what struggles he was having at the time the dispute arose.
Using those who, what, where, when, why and howopen-ended questions, find out what was happening at the time the dispute arose. I usually say something like, everything was fine between your two businesses for some time and then something happened to change all that.
During an accountant malpractice mediation, everyone, including the plaintiff’s lawyer, learned for the first time that the plaintiff’s son had gone into rehab and the plaintiff himself was called into active duty in Iraq just as the dispute arose.
Talking about the pain of those experiences, the plaintiff was more able to take his own part in the miscommunications leading to the dispute and the accountant was able to stop demonizing the plaintiff as a gold-digger.
Help the Parties Save Face
No one wants to be proven wrong in public, particularly by someone he’s been engaged in a protracted lawsuit with. If you’re a manager, executive or simply a well-meaning volunteer attempting to help two people solve a business dispute, help both parties save face by praising them for finding a way to solve a problem that’s been hurting business for some time.
Framing the problem as arising from a series of miscommunications rather than ill will usually gives the warring parties room to maintain their dignity, be accountable for their role in the dispute, forgive their adversary for his and move forward.
If you have a business or workplace dispute that you’re avoiding, you may well be spending no small amount of time brooding about it. Now that you know rumination interferes with your problem-solving powers, you’ve got yet another reason to sit down and hash it out, remembering that none of us is perfect and few of us are actually making an effort to cause trouble.