The brain’s working memory appears to be very limited and conflict places a lot of demand on that already-restricted capacity. But there are ways to reduce cognitive load during conflict resolution and free up the working memory needed for concentration, reasoning and good decision making.
Working memory is like a mental workspace where we hold and process information relevant to whatever we’re doing at the moment. It plays an important role in concentration, reasoning, decision making, and behavior, among other things.
In other words, working memory plays an important role in the kinds of mental activities central to effective conflict resolution.
But it appears that working memory has both limited capacity and short duration, and so can become overloaded when we think about complex problems, work on new and/or difficult tasks, receive new information, and experience worry and stress.
In other words, working memory can get “used up” by the emotional toll and complex thinking — the cognitive load — of conflict resolution. Anyone who has ever taken a skiing lesson or a mediation training knows the experience of cognitive overload when they first try to put all the pieces together.
So how can we reduce the cognitive load that comes with sorting out conflict? As with all human behavior, there are no guaranteed tactics and solutions. But the literature on working memory, cognitive load, and instructional design offers insights useful also for conflict resolution:
- Break larger problems into smaller, bite-size pieces. The gap between the present situation and the desired one is known as the “problem space.” If the problem space is very large, working memory can get overloaded. So narrow the problem space by breaking the conflict into smaller parts, pick one, and work on it. This works in complex negotiations as well. Here’s an example of how to break down the too-big question, “How to rebuild trust?”
- Avoid trying to sort out a disagreement while you’re doing something else. “Concurrent processing” increases cognitive load, decreases working memory, and is one of the reasons that multi-tasking is getting well-deserved criticism these days. If you’ve had an argument and are ready to talk about it, don’t do it at the dog park while trying to keep an eye on your unruly canine. Don’t do it while your laptop is open in front of you. Give the difficult conversation its due by making it your sole task.
- Merge multiple sources of visual information into as few as possible. I’ve seen facilitations with some information on powerpoint slides, some written on flipchart sheets hung around the room, and yet more in a report in front of each participant. From a working memory point of view, this “splits attention” and increases cognitive load.
And some recommendations specifically for mediators
- Working memory is challenged by lengthy instructions, long-winded ground rules, and the like. Keep in mind that as you give your opening statement, your words are not the only thing your parties are thinking about. They’re also thinking about the person(s) across the table. They’re also thinking about the conflict. They’re also thinking about the words of wisdom they just received from a friend or, in legal settings, from their attorney. That’s a whole lot of cognitive load, so focus on what’s most important and realize they won’t remember most of what you said if you go on and on.
- Consider the impact of long sessions on your parties’ ability to do good work. If your goal is to tire people into agreement, then long sessions will certainly help you achieve that goal. If your goal is to help people have fruitful conversation about what’s got them stuck, explore solutions that can stand the test of time, and to help them bring their best selves to the table, then the cognitive (not to mention emotional and even physical) demands of long sessions are not your ally.
- Cut your parties some slack if they don’t do something you explicitly instructed earlier in the session. Heavy cognitive load lowers the working memory available to remember all the details you can so easily recall yourself.
- Consider “pre-training,” a learning environment term meaning to deliver essential information prior to the time it will be needed. In a mediation context, pre-training might take the form of orientation sessions separate from the mediation session, or providing video or print material to digest in advance of the session.
- Limit extraneous material. I’ve had mediations where one party arrives with a rolling briefcase full of material and immediately starts piling binder after binder onto the table in front of their nemesis. It’s a dramatic gesture (and intended to be) and, of course, the goal is to overwhelm and cause the recipient to wither. A good mediator will understand that it has greater consequence than that — the other party opening even one of those binders and glancing through it increases concurrent processing and decreases the working memory needed rather desperately right now for other things. If the material has real merit and must be worked through, weed out all but the essential content and work through it in small segments. Otherwise, ask them to leave that rolling briefcase unopened.
- Leave the jargon at home. Unless everyone in the room is versed in mediator jargon, talk like someone who is not an impartial third party whose role is to facilitate negotiations by uncovering interests, reframing, and assisting with crafting an agreement should one become possible.