The Neuroscience of Conflict

If you’re in a conflict situation and you’re the one who’s been in power, making you do a good job of listening to what the other side is saying, making you take their perspective and really hear what they’re saying, makes you a little more open to them. It makes you perceive them with more empathy and as less irrational then you did a minute ago, or half an hour ago.

If you’re on the disempowered side of a conflict, if you’re coming from the less-empowered position, being told to take the perspective of the more-empowered side helps not at all; it might even hurts. Instead, what helps is feeling like the other side is hearing you. Getting the chance to talk and be heard makes you a little bit more open, a little more empathetic and a little less likely to see them as irrational. This is obviously not a solution to all possible problems, but this is a little bit of empirical data from a randomized controlled trial showing that one of the reasons dialogue works differently for the different sides is that, when you come from two sides of a power dynamic, you have different needs.

Rebecca Saxe is a cognitive neuroscientist, using functional MRI to study how our brains let us think about other minds. Her work has some relevance, so thinks, for how we go about resolving conflicts, which up to now has been done mostly intuitively, with spotty success. The quote above is from a conversation with her at Edge.

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