Neuroscience and Negotiation

I attended a recent workshop for family law attorneys in collaborative practice about how our brains work as attorneys and how our clients’ brains are in divorce.

It turns out, the science shows that when a person is going through a divorce, their brain goes into the fight or flight reptilian mode. Thus, they’re not at their optimal functional levels, and as such, they take cues from how their attorney acts and responds.

If we understand where our clients’ brains are, we can model compassionate negotiation. In Collaborative Divorce practice, we try to focus on the future, not the past. The more you tell your story over and over again, the more it deepens the synapses in the brain. The more you say it, the more you believe it.

And if your repetitive focus is on the negativity, hurt and trauma of the past, you’ll retreat even moreso into the fight-or-flight response.

At a recent Collaborative professionals forum in Las Vegas, I learned from Michal Shaked and Michal Kaempfer, attorneys from Israel, about the difference between being in reactive “survival” mode and creative “receptive” mode.

The key is to understand that when a person is in survival mode, she focuses only on what she needs to do to survive. Anxiety and stress can thrive in survival mode. The person in this state often remains closed to possibilities, has trouble hearing what other people say and may easily become adversarial.

No good comes from this state.

Receptive mode is where we make progress, when we feel good, strong, comfortable. This is where resolution happens. We can plan and behave according to our core values, be creative, hear other points of view.

And when we, in our creative, receptive state, recognize the vulnerable plight of a client or peer in survival mode, we can help move him toward being more receptive.

That is key to succeeding in Collaborative practice. I often ask a client in the survival state what his vision is, and then talk with him about this vision. This helps me better understand him and what I can do to make him feel better, stronger.

There are many things we can do as the Collaborative team to level the playing field and help all parties feel up to the task of negotiation. Only if the neuroscience aligns can we effect positive outcomes that are good for all involved.

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