To the extent that a mediator’s job involves listening to people complain and engage in negative behaviour, mediators face a serious mental health hazard.

Research shows that listening to ongoing negativity impairs the brain function of the listener. Yes! Listening can be bad for you if you have a whinging party in the room, and it’s even worse if you have two or more.

Trevor Blake writes about this phenomenon in his book, Three Simple Steps: A Map to Success in Business and Life. While Blake is not specifically thinking about mediators, the potential implications for the mental health of mediation professionals is alarming.

Apparently being exposed to too much complaining can have a dumbing down effect. Exposure to 30 minutes or more of complaining destroys neurons in the brain’s hippocampus – a part of the brain that is used in problem-solving and decision-making. In other words, our capacity for problem-solving decreases the more we are exposed to complaining and conflict. Yet, as mediators, our job is to listen to exactly this type of non-productive negative blah blah in order to support parties to make a shift towards positive problem-solving. Could it be that while we are enhancing their capacity for problem-solving, we are decreasing ours? What sort of impact could this potentially have on our mediation style and even our professional abilities over time?

You may laugh. Yes, perhaps it’s seems an unlikely scenario now. But science is moving much faster than most of us realize. As neuro-scientific findings become more accessible, there will be implications for all aspects of our professional and personal lives. Scientific findings such as these may even affect our professional indemnity insurance premiums.

So what can we as mediators do to inhibit the depletion of neurons by complaining parties and in doing so protect our problem-solving capacity? For it’s not exposure to conflict that is potentially detrimental to our brains but the lack of constructive engagement with it.

Here are three thoughts:
1. Introducing some distance between the mediator and the parties can be helpful. For example, factoring in breaks for our own mental health is important. Often we are so focussed on the parties that we forget about ourselves and our own ability to be influenced, especially on an unconscious level. So breaks, food, water, and fresh air – not just for the parties and their lawyers but also for mediators – are an essential component of designing the structure of mediation processes.

2. Move from ADR to ODR. Now some of you might be cleverly thinking that you can create some distance by introducing online aspects into your practice and placing the parties at the other end of a cyberlink. Yes, an interesting idea. Does it make a difference? Possibly … but probably not. The research shows that exposure to negativity via TV is just as bad.

3. Charge more money for whinging clients. So even if your brain is the worse for wear, your wallet will be better off.

Now, that made you smile, right?

On that note, let me say thank you for staying tuned in 2015. Stay posted for exciting things in 2016 at the Kluwer Mediation Blog.


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  1. What an interesting piece of insight! It explains quite a lot, particularly the ‘burn out’ phenomenon. Also the times when people who deal with the public at their worst (police, prison officers, complaints handlers, possibly prosecutors?) seem crushed by the general pessimism in the world. Mediators perform a real balancing act between empathising with people as they are and the clear need for someone to be positive and optimistic.
    I agree with your wisdom about allowing ourselves breaks – but I’m not sure that this message will be all that well received in the macho world of commercial dispute resolution.

  2. And all the more important for those of us in the conflict resolution field – life, to intentionally re-fill, refresh, empty, repeat our selves; and to notice those unexpected delights whether in the midst of or after them. We cannot give what we do not have. Reminder to self, re-read and practice!

  3. Thankyou Nadja – yes point 3 made me laugh – good preventative medicine in itself. I haven’t read the book you’re referring to but I wonder whether as mediators we have some immunity to the negative effects because of the fact that we are third party neutrals and because of the mindset with which we enter into mediation? People entering into mediation are often in pain (not just in the physical sense) and suffering all sorts of losses – we expect them to complain, we’re listening for what they’re needing and we’re accepting of where they are at so for me hearing the complaints is a privilege that helps me understand what they’re needing and be effective in my role (rather than something I need to protect myself against). Having said that, there is no doubt that repeated exposure to others’ pain can cause vicarious trauma and/or compassion fatigue – we do need to look after ourselves. Joy I love the notion of intentionally emptying, re-filling, refreshing and celebrating the unexpected delights. Thankyou!

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