Our efforts in lockdown to prevent, manage and resolve disputes can be supported by engaging with some psychology basics. Not only do we need to recognise the different biases we bring to lockdown negotiations and communications, there is also a range of other insights that we can learn from psychology. We don’t have a mediator at home and in virtual workplaces to help us, so we need to draw on our dispute resolution agency and harness this knowledge ourselves.
As we know, psychology is the scientific discipline that studies the human mind, human behaviour and the mental processes that inform human behaviour. Psychology as a profession is dedicated to helping people solve practical problems with human fundamentals – such as how we think and feel. A common misconception of psychology is that it is only concerned with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and stress. These issues fall under the heading of clinical psychology, which is a particular psychological specialisation. However, other aspects of psychological knowledge can help us in lockdown communications and dispute resolution practice to understand why people behave, think and feel in certain ways. It is therefore clear that our efforts to make communication and dispute resolution in lockdown more effective can be enhanced by connecting with the evidenced-based knowledge base of psychology.
In this post we specifically look at emotional intelligence, emotional flooding and emotional transference and countertransference. If we tap into some of these ‘psychology basics’ we will be better able to understand conflict, disputes and our responses to them in lockdown.
Simply put, emotional intelligence is the intelligent use of emotions. This requires an awareness of our emotions and an ability to use that awareness to beneficially aid our thinking and behaviour. Emotional intelligence informs our capacity to perceive emotions, assimilate emotion-related feelings, understand the information of those emotions, and manage them.
Emotional intelligence contains four competencies. First, the ability to perceive emotion accurately. Second, the ability to use emotion to facilitate thought. Third, the ability to understand emotion. Fourth, the ability to manage emotion.
Emotional intelligence is strongly related to intrapersonal intelligence and interpersonal intelligence. Emotional intelligence from an intrapersonal perspective considers an individual’s emotional self-awareness and their ability to regulate their own emotions. Emotional intelligence from an interpersonal perspective involves a person’s ability to accurately detect the emotions of another person and to manage their emotional responses.
Harnessing our emotional intelligence is important for communicating and negotiating in lockdown if we are to engage as well as we can with family, friends and work colleagues.
Emotional contagion is a psychological phenomenon that refers to the ‘catchability’ or contagiousness of emotions. For example, if Rachael is in a particularly happy mood, this mood may end up rubbing off on Anna and Anna may subsequently begin to feel happier. Anna might then ‘infect’ others with her happiness. Emotional contagion ‘refers to the tendency to catch (experience/express) another person’s emotions’ (Kimura, Daibo and Yogo, 2008, 27).
One formal definition of emotional contagion (sometimes referred to as primitive emotional contagion’ or ‘implicit emotional contagion’) describes the construct as ‘the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally’ (Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson, 1994, 5).
Emotional contagion has also been defined more broadly to mean ‘a process in which a person or group influences the emotions or behavior of another person or group through the conscious or unconscious induction of emotion states and behavioral attitudes’ (Schoenewolf, 1990, 49).
An awareness of emotional contagion can help us to understand the feelings of others and therefore see a conflict in a more positive light – and take actions that might lead to positive outcomes. This awareness can also help us to avoid catching the emotions of others, which otherwise might lead to feelings of helplessness, or hostility towards the other party.
Emotional flooding occurs when an individual becomes swamped by emotions. Biologically, intense emotional experience can affect the way the brain works. Information exchange to the neo-cortex is inhibited, with the result that people find it difficult to think in cognitively complex ways and to function properly. This might sound like a really extreme and rare occurrence, but it actually happens to people surprisingly frequently.
Have you ever found that in a heated argument, or when you are faced with a stressful situation, that your brain does not seem to function quite as well as you would like? Your muscles feel a bit tense, your heart rate goes up, your breathing becomes a bit more rapid, or your voice becomes unsteady? Maybe you feel like bursting into tears? These are all signs that emotional flooding may be occurring.
Knowing about emotional flooding is important for us in lockdown communications and negotiations. It is not uncommon to feel distressed if we are experiencing conflict, and this makes us particularly susceptible to emotional flooding. Emotional flooding is most likely to occur when we experience negative emotion that has been triggered by an external event, or even our own negative thoughts. It can be counterproductive to engaging in higher order thinking. That said, emotional flooding can occur to varying degrees in different people. For example, it might manifest itself in the person we are communicating with as their appearing just a bit spaced out, or mentally stuck.
Literature suggests that it may take at least 20 minutes for someone to recover from an experience of emotional flooding. Obviously, there are some situations where we can’t afford to take a 20-minute time out. Ideally then, we should try to avoid emotional flooding. Understanding our own triggers for emotional flooding is a vital step in its prevention. Reframing external problems or threats as challenges to be overcome, and correcting or challenging negative internal dialogue, are two strategies for combating emotional flooding. Positive self-talk is really helpful in this regard!
Transference and countertransference
The concepts of transference and countertransference have their origin in the work of Sigmund Freud and his focus on psychoanalysis/psychodynamic theory. Freud was a famous psychologist for many reasons, although when most people think about Freud, they often think about beards, couches, and unconscious and sexually repressed thoughts and behaviour. These images are all accurate to a certain degree. As it turns out, one of the reasons why Freud used ‘the couch’ when treating patients related to the notion of countertransference: ‘Freud frankly admitted that he used this arrangement inherited from the days of hypnosis, because he did not like “to be stared at”; thus, it served him as a protection in the transferencecountertransference duel’ (Benedek, 1953, 202).
Talking about transference and countertransference outside the context of psychotherapy arguably dilutes the precise clinical meaning of these terms. Given this caveat, transference refers to a process in which we might project on to the person we are communicating with certain traits – which might not be based in reality – but which stem from our previous associations with that person. Countertransference involves a reaction to their expressed emotions and point of view from a perspective of our own unresolved personal issues. Just like emotional contagion and emotional flooding, transference and countertransference are regularly occurring phenomena. They don’t necessarily lead to problems, but it is important to appreciate when transference and countertransference are at play.
Tomorrow’s Blog: Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #24: Effective communication strategies in lockdown – self-management: Part 1. This is followed by Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 #25: Effective communication strategies in lockdown – self-management: Part 2. These are the 2 final posts in the Lockdown Dispute Resolution 101 series.
The content of this post was adapted and reproduced from Rachael Field, James Duffy and Anna Huggins, Lawyering and Positive Professional Identities (LexisNexis, 2nd ed, 2020) paras 10.27-10.42.
Psychology image 1: American Psychological Association
Emotional intelligence image 1: Cognitive Institute
Emotional contagion image 1: Psychology Today
Emotional flooding image 1: Highly Sensitive Refuge
Countertransference image 1: Moosmosis
Therese Benedek, ‘Dynamics of the Countertransference’ (1953) 17 BULL Menninger Clinic 201.
Paul Olsen (ed), Emotional Flooding (Human Sciences Press, 1976).
Gerald Schoenewolf, ‘Emotional Contagion: Behavioral Induction in Individuals and Groups’ (1990) 15(1) Modern Psychoanalysis 49.
Elaine Hatfield, John T Cacioppo and Richard L Rapson, Emotional Contagion (Cambridge University Press, 1994).
Tricia Jones and Andrea Bodtker, ‘Mediating with Heart in Mind: Addressing Emotion in Mediation Practice’ (2001) 17(3) Negotiation Journal 217.
Lezlie Burwell-Pender and Kate H Halinski, ‘Enhanced Awareness of Countertransference’ (2008) 36(2) Journal of Professional Counseling: Practice, Theory, and Research 38.
Masanori Kimura, Ikuo Daibo and Masao Yogo, ‘The Study of Emotional Contagion from the Perspective of Interpersonal Relationships’ (2008) 36 Social Behavior and Personality 27.
Nadja Alexander, Jill Howieson and Kenneth Fox, Negotiation: Strategy Style Skills (LexisNexis, 3rd ed, 2015).