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The "Right" Brain

by Phyllis Pollack
June 2011

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

The other week, I attended an information packed 3 hour training session on how to mediate disputes with high-conflict people (aka “difficult” people). It was given by Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., President and Co-founder of High Conflict Institute based in Scottsdale, Arizona ( To say the least, it was interesting.

High-conflict people include those that: (1) may be rigid and uncompromising; (2) have difficulty accepting loss; (3) are unable to reflect on their own behavior; (4) allow their emotions to dominate their thinking; (5) are preoccupied with blaming others; (6) avoid responsibility for solving their problem; and (7) depend on others to solve their problems for them. In sum, they lack self-awareness, are unable to adapt and blame others. They include persons with various personality disorders such as narcissism, borderline, paranoia, antisocial and histrionic.

As explained by Mr. Eddy, all of this boils down to our brains, and more specifically, our right side vs. our left side. The left side of our brain is the “logical brain”. Generally we are conscious of what this side of our brain is up to. It controls language and verbal skills, our ability to organize things, our orientation to details, and our ability to analyze and to seek systematic solutions. In short, it is our “rational” side controlling our positive emotions such as calm and contentment.

On the other hand, the right side of our brain is our “emotional” side governing relationships. It usually operates at our “unconscious” level and is responsible for our creativity, art, intuition, non-verbal skills (or lack thereof), facial recognition and in sum, our “gut” feelings! It also controls our negative emotions such as fear and anger.

In extremely simple terms, a “high-conflict” person is operating from the right side of her brain which houses the “fight or flight” response and other modes of fast defensive thinking such as an all or nothing mindset, emotional reasoning, and jumping to conclusions.

Consequently, in order to get anywhere with a high-conflict person, one must get her to move away from her right brain and into her left brain. To do this, Mr. Eddy suggests a process composed of four skills: bonding, structure, reality testing and consequences.

By bonding, Mr. Eddy suggests that we use empathy, attention and respect (E.A.R.) with the high-conflict person. Acknowledge (although not necessarily agreeing) that she is upset and let her know that you care; connect with her feelings.

In terms of structure, rather than allow the high-conflict person to continuously and continually vent, ask her to turn her complaint into a proposal. A high-conflict person needs a lot of structure; so focus her on the future, rather than the past, and ask for proposals. Have her make lists, again to provide structure.

In addition, provide reality testing, acknowledging that one may never know the full and complete story but that decisions can be made without knowing everything there is to know.

Most importantly, (Mr. Eddy emphasizes) one must reinforce the notion that the dilemma is hers; how does she want to resolve it? Keep the burden on her, rather than allowing her to dump it on you and getting you to resolve her problem for her. Keep putting it back on the high- conflict person.

Finally, Mr. Eddy explains, educate the high-conflict person to the consequences: help her connect the dots between her behavior and its consequences; between cause and effect. Focus on the positive consequences.

In going through this process with high-conflict people, Mr. Eddy suggests that we use a calm, confident, firm voice and body language. He also suggests that as long as the high-conflict person is engaging her right brain, that we stay away from logic. Logic simply does not work in times of stress. Rather, communicate with the high-conflict person in the way that you want her to relate to you. Studies have shown that people “mirror” behaviors. For example, if I lean forward to show deep interest, the other person will subconsciously mirror my body language by leaning forward as well.

As you can see, quite a lot of information was packed into this training. The challenge will be not only to try to remember all of these tips but to implement them the next time they are needed. I will definitely have to engage my left brain to accomplish this!

. . .Just something to think about!


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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