When negative experiences leave someone with strong emotional memories, discussing those experiences during conflict resolution can be tricky territory. The solution isn’t to suppress discussion of negative events or ask people to set aside their strong emotions. Recent research offers insight into a simple way to navigate emotional memories in a way that reduces the negative side effects.
A quick thought experiment:
Recall a negative experience with someone who matters or mattered to you — maybe an ex-spouse, the sibling you’re not speaking to right now, or a current supervisor who manages to get under your skin so very easily. Find a specific negative experience with them — a certain conversation or particular event. Got one?
Next, imagine that you’re trying to perform a task right now. Maybe the task is something mechanical, like trying to repack the wheel bearings on your mountain bike. Maybe the task is something cerebral, like creating a powerpoint slide to explain data you gathered about employee retention. Maybe the task is communicative, like having to talk through a disagreement with the very person you imagined earlier. Got a task in mind?
Ok, now focus on how you felt during or as a result of the negative experience you selected earlier. What physical sensations did you experience? What emotions did you feel?
If you really committed to my thought experiment, odds are good you just reduced your cognitive performance on the task you imagined trying to do. Processing emotion takes resources in certain parts of your brain, prompting your brain to draw resources from other regions, including those that help you accomplish a task.
Conflict and emotional expression
Conflict can be a veritable snake pit of difficult and negative emotions. And conflict resolution almost inevitably provokes the recollection and discussion of negative emotional memories.
Very often, people in conflict very much want to replay what happened and the bad impact it had on them; sometimes they almost can’t stop the conflict replay because it’s become a habit of mind. And, of course, it may well be relevant to discuss an event or experience that left strong emotional memories, as a way to unpack it and figure out how to prevent similar experiences in the future.
We know already that effective conflict resolvers support emotional expression and don’t try to “emotionally throttle” participants (I made up that term) to deal with unwelcome emotion.
But anyone who’s ever sat in the mediator’s chair — parent, supervisor, HR manager, professional mediator — knows that it can be tricky to walk the line between supporting emotional expression and eluding difficult emotional escalation.
Shifting from emotional to contextual focus
Recent research out of the University of Illinois offers insight into a way we can discuss difficult experiences while also reducing the negative impact of those recollections.
The beauty of this strategy is that it both reduces the emotional response of the intrusive memory and doesn’t affect cognitive performance. Anyone can use it at any time.
– Sanda Dolcos
Researchers examined how brain activity and task performance changed when participants were told to focus on either emotional or contextual aspects of emotional memories. Each participant was asked to perform a task while researchers triggered a memory of a negative event the participant had earlier revealed to the researchers.
Researchers instructed half of the participants to focus on the emotional aspects of their negative memory, such as how they felt at the time and physical sensations they had experienced (e.g., “butterflies” or “burning” sensation in the stomach). These participants had less working memory available to them; working memory is like a mental workspace where we temporarily hold and process information. They also had increased activity in regions of the brain involving emotional processing, and reduced activity in regions involved in executive function, such as reasoning and memory.
Researchers instructed the other half to focus on the contextual details of the negative memory, such as where and when the event occurred, who they were with, what they were wearing, and so on. Recalling the negative event did not take a toll on the working memory of these participants, who had better task performance than the other group. These participants also showed a “dampening” in brain regions involved in distraction and emotional processing, and an increase in both activity and communication among regions associated with executive function and attention.
Instead of suppressing or stifling those emotional memories, we simply shift the focus and bring to life some other aspects of the same memory. That leads to a reduction in how much those memories interfere with whatever we’re doing.”Florin Dolcos, professor of psychology, university of illinois
Using this idea
The research was not conducted with conflict resolution in mind, but my own experience at the mediation and coaching tables gives me anecdotal evidence that this method has merit beyond the narrow research context.
Using the method with yourself
When you find an emotional memory of your own to be intrusive, you can use this method to reduce the distraction and focus on what you want to be focusing on.
Use self-talk to change your focus when fretting over a negative event. Instead of letting your mind ruminate on how upset you were or how annoying it is to deal with that person, focus your attention on contextual details. Ask yourself the kinds of questions outlined to below to shift your focus. This will take commitment and practice to do on your own, but it is learnable.
Using the method to help others
When you’re helping someone with a conflict as a friend, family member, coach, or mediator, use contextual prompts to redirect the focus of the emotional memory.
Contextual prompts include questions like these, all focused on “nonemotional” details associated with what happened:
- What were the circumstances? (Where were you and when?)
- What else was going on that day?
- What do you recall doing (or saying) in response?
- What was body language like (theirs, yours)?
These prompts are not for you to gather information relevant to resolution. They’re for supporting expression of their emotional memory while also helping them keep their emotional balance in the midst of it. Sometimes, as I like to say, you’ve go to slow down to go fast.