We’ve all had the experience. A friend whose smile seems infectious. A spouse whose foul mood puts us in a foul mood. There is a name for this phenomenon - emotional contagion - and it can be a challenge for mediators dealing with parties in conflict.
What is emotional contagion?
Emotional contagion is just what it sounds like - the process of “catching” another person’s emotions. These emotions can be positive, negative, or even calm or neutral.
How does emotional contagion happen?
Emotional contagion is largely unconscious and happens through a process known as automatic mimicry: “[w]e unconsciously tend to mimic and synchronize our own nonverbal expressions with the nonverbal expressions of other people.” (Emotional Contagion) This means that if we see someone frowning, our facial muscles almost imperceptibly mimic the frown of that person. The body leads the heart/mind in this case - our emotions lining up with our physical attributes - and we begin to actually feel the emotions that our body is expressing.
Why does emotional contagion happen?
There are likely evolutionary benefits of emotional contagion to us humans. We are highly social beings and the ability to transmit emotional states by nonverbal and even unconscious means could significantly affect how the group functions on a very basic survival level. (Gesundheit! The Surprising Case of Emotional Contagion) So, it may happen because it was, at least at one time, advantageous to the species.
What are the challenges and benefits of emotional contagion for mediators?
The challenge for mediators when it comes to emotional contagion is the same as it would be for anyone in a caregiving profession like a nurse or a therapist. We are humans, robot mediators aside, and are susceptible to emotional contagion. The trouble is, if you absorb the emotions of others and are exposed to highly negative emotions on a regular basis, you may experience a higher level of burnout.
One of the benefits of emotional contagion for a mediator is that your positive or calm emotions can be potentially contagious for the parties to the mediation. This could help in a couple of ways. Your positive emotional presence in the room could help the parties feel more positive about the potential for developing a plan that could work for each of them. Likewise, your calmness in the face of highly charged emotion could be infectious and help parties move toward a more productive emotional space.
How do I combat the negatives of emotional contagion?
Some of what it takes to combat emotional contagion comes back to things we’ve discussed in this blog before, including mindfulness and self-care. But one study conducted by a psychologist at the University of Hawaii may hold some clues to the most effective tool a mediator can turn to in order to combat emotional contagion: dissociation.
In this study, people were asked to view videos of real people talking about the happiest and saddest days of their lives. The people watching the videos were to pretend that they were therapists to the videotaped people. Some of the people were asked to simply reflect on their “client’s” experience. Some were asked to place themselves in the client’s shoes. And a third group was asked to listen, but remain detached. In other words, to picture the story and themselves as though they were an outside observer. (Is There an Antidote for Emotional Contagion?)
The people who self-reported the least amount of emotional contagion was the third group, those instructed to listen but remain detached. Interestingly, they were also judged to be the most effective therapists for the “clients.” That is, they performed the best as therapists in the study.
This has two implications for mediators. First, we may most effectively protect ourselves from burnout by adopting a “neutral” third-party observer stance toward the stories of our parties. (surprise, surprise, neutrality is the mediator’s friend!) We may also be seen as most empathetic and genuine to parties (important for developing rapport) when we adopt this stance.
Emotional contagion is real and we are all susceptible. There are social benefits to social contagion, and it can be used to the mediator’s advantage in promoting positive or calm emotions in parties. And, finally, the best way to combat the burnout effect of emotional contagion is to adopt the perspective of an outside observer when taking in parties’ stories.
Have you ever experienced emotional contagion in a mediation? What tools did you use to combat it? Leave your comments below.