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Unlearning And Learning From Freud For Negotiated Solutions

by Luis Miguel Diaz
December 2008 Luis Miguel Diaz

This essay is inspired by Sigmund Freud’s persuasive, imaginative and enigmatic writings on mental processes and their meanings. He was the founder of psychoanalysis and is psychology's most famous author. The relevance of Freud’s work is even manifested in popular language which has incorporated expressions that he coined such as “mechanisms of defense” and “Oedipus Complex.” The significance of his legacy remains disputed.

While mental processes were Freud’s primary interest, the goal of this essay is to understand strategies that might aid in the resolution of complex problems. In both the field of psychoanalysis and the field of conflict resolution, the functioning of the mind is crucial and similar processes are involved.

The Man, the Character and his Circumstances

All human lives are complex, but few are recorded in such detail as Freud’s. He was born in 1856 Freiberg in Moravia, Austrian Empire. Owing to his precocious intellect, his parents favored him over his siblings from the early stages of his childhood; and despite their poverty, they sacrificed everything to give him a proper education. The family moved first to Leipzig, Germany before settling in Vienna, Austria. After planning to study law, Freud joined the medical faculty at University of Vienna to study under Darwinist Prof. Karl Claus.

In October 1885 Freud went to Paris on a traveling fellowship to study with Europe's most renowned neurologist, Jean Martin Charcot, who specialized in the study of hysteria and its susceptibility to hypnosis which he frequently demonstrated with patients on stage in front of an audience. Freud later turned away from hypnosis as a potential cure, favoring free association and dream analysis.

In his 40s, Freud had numerous psychosomatic disorders as well as exaggerated fears of dying and other phobias. During this time Freud was involved in the task of exploring his own dreams, memories, and the dynamics of his personality development. During this self-analysis, he came to realize the hostility he felt towards his father (Jacob Freud), who had died in 1896, and he also recalled his childhood sexual feelings for his mother (Amalia Freud), who was attractive, warm, and protective. This time of emotional difficulty was the most creative time in Freud's life. Feeling complete isolated he conceived his book The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900, which sold only 321 copies in the first six years after publication. In 1901 he published The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

In 1930, Freud received the Goethe Prize in appreciation of his contribution to psychology and to German literary culture. Three years later the Nazis took control of Germany and Freud's books featured prominently among those burned by the Nazis. In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss. This led to violent outbursts of anti-Semitism in Vienna, and Freud and his family received visits from the Gestapo. Freud decided to go into exile "to die in freedom". He and his family left Vienna in June 1938 and traveled to London.

A heavy cigar smoker, Freud endured more than 30 operations during his life due to oral cancer. In September 1939 he asked his doctor and friend Max Schur to assist him in suicide. Freud said: My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more. Schur administered three doses of morphine that resulted in Freud's death.


Thinking in terms of generalizations is dangerously misleading for the management of complex human conflicts. A conflict solver of complex problems must avoid generalizations about human motivation and behavior and rather strive to understand the dynamics of the relationships creating the problems.

Freud‘s thinking on the mind was grounded in generalizations about people and their characteristics, while ignoring the myriad of differences that make individuals unique. Is it possible for two people to be that identical? Because people are so unique and complex, they defy narrow stereotypes. Do you know a person who behaves consistently under all circumstances?

Freud would judge an entire group of individuals taking as an example an individual of the group in a given moment. From pictures of a person in a given moment (photos) he deduced mental processes and the person’s ways of being. It was these mysterious mental processes that captivated Freud and occupied much of his work. This essay will examine some of Freud’s generalizations and their applicability to conflict resolution.

Freud once said:

The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is: What does a woman want?

One response could be the question: do all women want the same? Here, Freud’s generalization is a mixture of sense of humor and perplexity based on personal experiences, apart from being a question without answer as long as it is not placed in a given context.

Sometimes instead of keeping silent, he also made generalizations with a combination of poetry and great imagination to present facts of life and grant them a universal meaning. For example:

The act of birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety.

Freud makes the connection between the dread of the human fetus in its perilous journey through the improbably narrow birth canal and the meaning of anguish. As such, anguish is representing the concept of a narrow space.

Freud was an extremist and possessed a unique talent to move from one extreme to another. While for him traditionally mental dynamics were the result of inaccessible mysteries, under psychoanalysis all mental states had an explanation or meaning in terms of the principle of causality. Psychoanalysis provided the interpretation of all the determiners. Freud was a master of the composition of thoughts and words, however he was trapped by his own generalizations and exaggerated simplifications.

Freud’s penchant for generalizations is clearly represented in his firm ideas about the nature of humans. For him, humans were beings that primarily responded to instincts. For Freud instincts are the principal motivating forces in the mental realm, and as such they energize the mind in all of its functions. Such instincts, could be reduced to a small number of basic ones, which he grouped into two broad generic categories, Eros (the life instinct), which covers all the self-preserving and erotic instincts, and Thanatos (the death instinct), which covers all the instincts towards aggression, self-destruction, and cruelty.

It seems that Freud wanted to simplify, rationalize and generalize every unconscious behavior. Hence the significance which he attributed to slips of the tongue or pen, obsessive behavior, and dreams - all, he held, are determined by hidden causes in the mind mental and reveal what would otherwise not be known at all. It follows from this that whenever we make a choice we are governed by hidden mental processes of which we are unaware and over which we have no control.

A complex conflict might have numerous causes. What role do genetic, biological and physiological processes play as determiners of thoughts or feelings? What about the food we eat, the liquids we drink, the air we inhale? What about expectations for the future that can be seen as determiners of behavior? What about the physical pain we feel? What about lack of sleep the night before? What about the vocabulary of the language we develop? What about the history, education, traditions, culture and personal experiences that shapes us? What about external elements such as climate, natural forces and magnetic fields, and the movement of planets as determiners of mental states or relationships?

Understanding the mind and behavior surpasses mere generalizations. It is dangerous to believe that any model explains everything under all circumstances. Such generalizations are dangerous and miss vital complexities which might be relevant.

Freud’s reliance upon generalizations and deterministic explanations impeded him to articulate even his own thoughts. He wrote:

The tendency of aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man... it constitutes the most powerful obstacle to culture. Civilized society is perpetually menaced with disintegration through this primary hostility of men towards one another.

How could civilization surface despite human aggression? Much points to the tension between civil society and the urge for aggression, yet Freud viewed aggression as a powerful determiner of human behavior, rather than a choice that one could make or not make.

In summary, an effective conflict solver must avoid generalizations about the parties and situations. She must try to observe each person and situation in the context where they exist. She must try to associate and consider all possible processes that may be determiners of the situation. She must unlearn languages or styles of thinking that generalize subjects and processes.

Recommendations for Conflict Solvers

A preliminary issue for approaching complex problems is whether they require a set of rules for the solutions to be followed.

Freud established recommendations rather than rules regarding how psychoanalysts should conduct themselves in assisting their patients. He ruled out strict rules of conduct and believed that “recommendations” of what the psychoanalyst should not do would adequately guide the practice. As Freud acknowledged:

The `Recommendations on Technique' I wrote long ago were essentially of a negative nature. I considered the most important thing was to emphasize what one should not do...

On the contrary, what the helper should do was left to tact. A sort of elasticity should exist. The expression of tact must be based essentially on the dissection of our own self. Tact included the notion of modesty, which should be the expression of the acceptance of the limits to our knowledge. Tact involves being mindful of the other person and the context while taking into account one's own conduct. As such, tact was important for keeping or creating harmonious relationships. Tact is also the talent to provoke change with kindness. Tact responds to the reading of the context rather to rules of conduct. In a way, tact is an expression of intuition.

Freud's recommendations also included anonymity, neutrality, and confidentiality and served as the foundation of modern codes of ethics for psychoanalysts. Are these recommendations effective for conflict solvers?

With regard to anonymity, Freud recommended that the analyst not reveal his own emotional reactions or discuss his own experiences. Freud viewed any previous acquaintance with the patient or relation with the patient or the patient's family as a serious disadvantage. Such anonymity, on the other hand, makes it difficult for conflict resolvers to develop the relationship of trust that is important in facilitating conflict resolution. Anonymity is also a very Western /European concept that does not fit well with the values of collectivist cultures where trust and respect are given to those whom you know rather than anonymous strangers.

With regard to neutrality, Freud recommended that the analyst should not give the patient directions concerning choices in the patient's life nor assume the role of teacher or mentor. The technique neutrality, central to the psychoanalytic situation, is also essential for the proper evolution of an analytic process. Neutrality is both an attitude and the behavioral stance most frequently recommended for the analyst, and is considered by many as essential in defining analytic treatment. Every psychoanalyst is supposed to function as a neutral analyst.

If no human being is free from a history and expectations, to what extent is Freud asking the impossible? To what extent does this recommendation of neutrality force the analyst into a self-deception? Perhaps it is enough if the patients or parties perceive the helper as neutral. Otherwise, it seems that asking for neutrality from a human being in therapy or in dispute resolution is merely illusory. Perhaps this is why the Joint Standards of Conduct for Mediators requires that neutrals behave in an impartial manner rather than focusing on what is in the mind of the neutral. Hence, the mandate is for impartiality rather than neutrality.

With regard to confidentiality, Freud recommended that the analyst should not disclose the information he gathered from patients. Confidentiality means that a physician may not disclose any medical information revealed by a patient or discovered by a physician in connection with the treatment of a patient. Nowadays this recommendation is a binding rule or a guide of conduct included in codes of ethics for all sort of professionals who handle information from clients or patients.

These three recommendations—anonymity, neutrality, and confidentiality--are familiar to experienced conflict solvers. They are fundamental to Freud's technical contributions to the practice of psychoanalysis. None of them was ever retracted or substantially modified in any of Freud's writings.

Interestingly, deviations from such simple, negative “recommendations” have been recorded in historical sources in Freud’s practice. These results show a substantial disparity between Freud's recommendations and his actual methods (i.e. his perceptions of his behavior versus the perceptions of other observers of his behavior). These findings reveal an active, personal, and emotionally engaged clinician quite different from the image of the analyst as uninvolved and neutral listener and interpreter of transference and resistance. This information shows a lack of correspondence between what Freud recommended and what he actually did.

What is to be learned from Freud’s actual practice as a psychoanalyst? The lesson is that a conflict solver must respond more to what seems appropriate in the context. In other words, an effective conflict solver must not be bound by rules or recommendations. Her energy must be emergent and focused on observation and positive energy in assisting parties for a negotiated solution.

Accepting and Converting the Problem Into solution

Freud discarded old methods used for mental diseases. He discovered that their puzzling symptoms had a definite meaning, and that there was nothing arbitrary. He elaborated hypotheses on the complex problems of human behavior, and on the frontier between normal and abnormal mental states. The starting point was the acceptance of mental disorders as real problems and the adoption of strategies to convert the problem into solutions. This view is clearly illustrated when he speculated:

A man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get into accord with them: they are legitimately what direct his conduct in the world.

Converting problems into solutions includes a reorientation of the forces that provoked the problem. Instead of elaborating on the problem, one has to gain perspective and develop strategies that include recalling our best times about the situation in the past, wishing and thinking about what worked best then, visioning what we want in the future, and building from our strengths to work toward our vision.

Fragmentation of Resources for Conflict Management

Deciding paths to pursue personal happiness, Freud provided the following fable:

Just as a cautious businessman avoids investing all his capital in one concern, so wisdom would probably admonish us also not to anticipate all our happiness from one quarter alone.

A teaching from his advice is that in designing possible courses of action for conflict solution one should not limit solutions by puttingput all of one’s eggs in the same basket.

Looking at Options

Explaining Psychoanalysis, Freud expressed:

Analysis does not set out to make pathological reactions impossible, but to give the patient's ego freedom to decide one way or another.

For complex problems it is desirable to follow a flexible strategy that includes anticipating many options. An option is a possible path of action or thinking to achieve something, but not the obligation to comply with it.

Talking cure

After experimenting with hypnosis on his neurotic patients, Freud abandoned hypnosis in favor of a treatment where the patient talked through his or her problems. This came to be known as the talking cure that is widely seen as the basis of psychoanalysis.

The talking cure might serve as a sort of narrative mechanism for a party to construct and express their view of the problem. The process may be laborious. It is one of the tasks the conflict solver may use to assist the parties to recognize, and to overcome, their own natural resistance to change their perception. Dialoguing with the parties might bring them to a point where they can identify options for conflict solution.

Through the talking cure one must seek the invisible, the network of conflicting perceptions which exist behind the conflict.

The talking cure is deeply rooted in Freud’s view of primitive human cognition. Freud stated:

Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power. By words one person can make another blissfully happy or drive him to despair, by words the teacher conveys his knowledge to his pupils, by words the orator carries his audience with him and determines their judgments and decisions. Words provoke affects and are in general the means of mutual influence among men. Thus we shall not depreciate the use of words in psychotherapy and we shall be pleased if we can listen to the words that pass between the analyst and his patient.

In spite, or because, words were originally magic and maintain that original magic, they might serve to facilitate conflict solving.

In going back to the evolution of humans Freud imagined:

The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.

This celebrated quotation from Freud may be a beautiful metaphor for a radical change in human interactions. The word substituted the weapon for the settlement of disputes. The talking cure is for psychoanalysis what the magic language is for negotiated solutions; it may generate the changes required for conflict management.

Magic language includes the use of analogies or metaphors. Freud stated:

Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.

Generally, a metaphor is as a way of speaking in which one occurrence is expressed in terms of another, whereby this correlation throws new light on the situation. Metaphors have impact on and illuminate human communication and experience.

Efficacy of Psychoanalysis

Freud’s theories explained the healing of neurotic illness, yet the results are mixed. Even a good theory might be badly applied, leading to negative results. Another difficulty is to specify what counts as a cure for a neurotic illness, as distinct, say, from the mere alleviation of the symptoms. The therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis remains controversial.


Two fundamental features of Freud’s work regarding therapeutic interventions in mental processes appear to be confusing. The first deceptive concept was Freud’s generalizations that ignore individual and contextual uniqueness. The second is Freud’s belief that psychoanalysts, in assisting their patients, should follow strict recommendations about what they should not do.

A variety of useful concepts also emerged from Freud’s work that may provide much needed guidance for effective conflict resolvers. Among these are: accepting and converting the problem into solution; fragmenting resources for conflict management; looking at options; and the power of the talking cure.

Merri L. Hanson edited and improved this text. Merri is the Director of Peninsula Mediation & ADR in Williamsburg, Virginia.


Luis Miguel Díaz, unfortunately now deceased, fathered four children and distrusted language, theories and authority, including his own as a father. Admires artists and scientists and their lives. He received his Law Degree at UNAM, Mexico (1974); and LLM (1976) and SJD (1986) at Harvard University Law School. President of the Interdisciplinary Center for Conflict Management in Mexico City. Author of more than 100 articles and 15 books. We all miss Luis.


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