Dr. Raymond Ferrier is a mediator, coach and facilitator. He has lived, studied and worked on three continents, which has strongly influenced and widened his perspectives on culture, diversity, and modes of problem solving. With a background in sociology and physical therapy, his interest centers on communication andrelationships at the intersection of the soma and social environment. He can be reached at Coach@RaymondFerrier.com. For more on the role of the body in communication visit his blog at www.raymondferrier.wordpress.com

Your Body in Conflict

by Dr. Raymond Ferrier

Conflict is as unavoidable as death and taxes

To state the obvious: as mediators, conflict is our bread, the air we breathe, the context of our work life.

Even for those of us who do not deal with conflict for a living, conflict is a pervasive aspect of everybody’s social life.

Conflict is a consequence of communication or lack thereof

Conflict, ultimately, is always the consequence of something that was communicated, not communicated or poorly communicated. Communication is the lifeblood of any relationship; unskilled communication has consequences that may range from not being able to reach one’s goals to intractable and paralyzing conflict.

What are you communicating?

We are virtually always communicating something; by the way we dress, what and the way we speak, our facial expressions, how we hold and move our body and even by the way we breath or sweat.

Communication is primarily physical-emotional in its effects

What we communicate affects our audience first on a physical-emotional level and only secondarily on an intellectual level. This is even more acute in conflict situations. As mediators, it is crucial that we are both able to accurately read what each party to the conflict is communicating as well as what we are communicating on this physical-emotional level.

What is the first impression that you make?

From the first moment that we make face to face contact with the parties they will try to get a read on how well they will be able to press their case with you. No matter that you are the “neutral”, you are human and so are the parties. Do you come across as “all business”, empathetic, “straight shooter”, emotional/unemotional, authoritative, authoritarian, “not to be messed with”, energetic, uninterested, nervous or qualified? The feel that the parties get from you in the first seconds is going to have an inordinate amount of impact on how the parties and their lawyers are likely to behave, irrespective of your verbal competency.

Are your conflict management behaviors skilled or defense-based?

Conflict situations are inherently stressful. Depending on our personal and professional history, we have all developed a set of skills and defense-mechanisms to deal with it. Hopefully, your mediation behaviors are heavily weighted towards social-emotional skill and less towards defense-mechanisms. I’d like to touch just lightly on one defense mechanism that I have observed in mediators.

The internal experience of emotions is a crucial mediation skill

Defense -mechanism: lack of emotionality. I’m referring here in the first place to the internal experience of emotions, not the expression of those emotions. Suppressing the generally unpleasant feelings that conflict brings up in us is a commonly used way to maintain internal control.

The drawback is that it makes it more difficult for us to fully appreciate the emotional context of the conflict that we are mediating. It also makes the parties less likely to reveal what part of the conflict is most salient to them. As we all know, this is where we can make the most progress toward transforming the conflict and seeking a win-win solution.

When you allow yourself to experience the emotions in the room, others will pick-up on your emotional presence through the automatic physical expressions that any emotion and internal experience brings about, without having to explicitly respond emotionally.

Somatic awareness is an essential source of information

Nothing worthwhile happens in the realm of mediation -or life in general- without acknowledgement and understanding of the emotional context. Emotions are experienced and expressed in and by the body. Somatic or body awareness is therefore a crucial component of being a skilled and effective mediator.