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How your brain can land you in conflict

Our brains all work in different ways.” This was how neurodiversity was defined by the presenter on a recent webinar I attended. I signed up to expand my knowledge in this area, but hadn’t expected that the first thing the presenter said would go right to the heart of what we try to address in workplace mediation.

All the time in mediation we encounter people who are experiencing conflict mostly not because they are fundamentally nasty people, out to ‘get’ the other person, but because they are each behaving in a way that the other does not understand. Person X says or does something that feels at odds with what Person Y would naturally expect. It doesn’t have to be anything major – in fact conflicts invariably start with something relatively minor like no reply to ‘Good Morning’, or being left out of a meeting when they expected to be invited.

So how does that minor incident escalate into a major relationship breakdown? Most of the time it doesn’t thankfully, otherwise we mediators would be inundated with work! In most situations people either shrug it off or check it out with the other person and find there is an innocent explanation – the ‘Good Morning’ was simply not heard, the meeting exclusion was because it was low level and they did not want to waste a senior person’s time.

However, if these minor issues are not addressed early, there is a chance of escalation. What happens is that our brain will do its best to help out by seeking to find an explanation for the behaviour we have noticed. It will try to fill in the blanks based on context, history and how we might expect to act ourselves in that situation. And this is where the neurodiversity definition is relevant. We make assumptions about the other person’s behaviour based partly on what we expect ourselves. But as the definition says, we all work in different ways, so what might be a perfectly logical and reasonable way of behaving to one person may be completely unacceptable to another. The logical consequence is to think that the other person could not possibly be behaving that way unintentionally and that there must be some reason, and in a negative scenario it is assumed that there is malicious intent.

Consequently a lot of time is spent in mediation helping participants understand where the other is coming from; what they were thinking when they acted or said the things they did. Underpinning this approach is the key point that we are all different and should not make assumptions about the other person based on what we would do, say or think ourselves.

There’s a great quote which sums this up. I found it in an old Benny Hill clip but I’m sure that’s not the original source! “Never assume. If you assume you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” Or better still, make the assumption that you can’t know what the other person’s intention was and therefore either ask them or let it go.


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