Narrative, Stories, Emotion and Meaning in Conflict Resolution Law Practice

A story full of emotion and meaning

For the past three days, I’ve been a participant-observer in a workshop for healthcare professionals presented by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a member of the faculty at University of California Medical School in San Francisco and a fellow program director at  Commonweal. Entitled The Healing Power of Story: Opening to a Deeper Human Connection, this workshop taught simple, accessible, and yet profound ways to reclaim surprise, meaning, and inspiration in the ordinary everyday encounters that professionals have with colleagues, clients, and patients.

Rachel’s work speaks most directly to healthcare professionals because of commonalities in the personal values and qualities that led them to choose nursing, or medicine, or veterinary practice, or psychotherapy as career paths.  All the people in the room (except me) had discovered before they were ten years old that caring for the needs of other living things was a fundamental organizing purpose of their lives.

And yet I,  a lawyer, saw immediately how these practices and insights could help members of my own profession reclaim meaning and integration in our daily work with clients–serving them better, and at the same time taking better care of ourselves as human beings.  It seems to me that the profound organizing purpose that most of us in the legal profession discovered in our early years and that we carry forth in our work arises out of deeply held values of fairness and peace.  Yet as we learn to be lawyers, we are socialized to move away from important human qualities and behaviors that surely are central in helping our clients find fair resolution and peace.

To become lawyers, we have struggled to hone necessary skills and to become excellent at what we do.  Although most of us brought to the table a facility with language, argumentation and logic, nonetheless it came easily to none of us to “think like a lawyer,” the first hard lesson of a legal education.  Many of us have paid a steep price as we shaped ourselves to match the professional persona of a lawyer, pruning away what doesn’t match the official job description  (empathy is often one of the early casualties) and squeezing into the box inconvenient  human qualities (our own emotions, our own most accessible ways of apprehending reality) unrelated to legalistic deductive reasoning, so as to keep them unseen and under control.

Do we have to leave behind essential humanity to practice law?  I don’t think so.  But that’s what happens to us in law school and in our on the job experiences in court.  No wonder lawyers register so high in all the indicia of a profession in trouble:  drug abuse, alcoholism, major depression, suicide.  We tend not to want our children to follow in our footsteps, and perhaps this problem–the loss of intrinsic human meaning in our daily work–is the reason.

I’ve taken from Rachel’s workshop some proven approaches that you’ll be seeing in the programs on reclaiming meaning in legal practice that the Integrative Law Institute will be offering during late 2012 and 2013. We will examine what we have in common that drew us to law rather than other professions, and what is intrinsic to helping others heal breaches in the social fabric, and what is not.

Email me at to join the list of lawyers, mediators, and judges receiving earliest notification and enrollment information for these events.


Rachel is the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.

Clients Want Integrative Lawyering

Michael Lerner, an early MacArthur fellowship winner, founder of Commonweal, and founder of The New School at Commonweal, spoke in March with Pauline Tesler, director of the Integrative Law Institute.  Michael is an extraordinarily gifted interviewer whose questions and comments showed deep understanding of the challenges facing lawyers who work with individuals and families in personal disputes.

The audience in attendance listened with curiosity and afterward expressed amazement at hearing an experienced lawyer tell the truth about what’s wrong with delivery of legal services to people experiencing predictable human conflicts in their families and communities.

It was easy to hear the undercurrent of distrust and dislike for the legal profession imbedded in their questions and comments. Just as apparent was the desire to know more and to learn how to find an integrative lawyer for themselves or their families when seemingly irreconcilable conflicts arise.

That hunger for constructive, resolution-oriented, humanistic legal conflict resolution services is a driving force for ILI’s programming.   ILI offers certification in Integrative Legal Conflict  Resolution for lawyers who attend its continuing education programs.  The certification program will help lawyers build effective social media strategies so that they can be found by  potential clients when a lawyer’s counsel is needed.

A podcast of the conversation is available at the New School’s website..

The Price of Keeping Big Secrets

Even the words we use to describe secrecy suggest physical burdens:  we “keep” or “hold onto” or are “weighted down” by hiding important information from others.

A new series of studies reported in the March issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology  investigated the physical impact of harboring important secrets, such as secrets concerning infidelity and sexual orientation.

“People who recalled, were preoccupied with, or suppressed an important secret estimated hills to be steeper, perceived distances to be farther, indicated that physical tasks would require more effort, and were less likely to help others with physical tasks. The more burdensome the secret and the more thought devoted to it, the more perception and action were influenced in a manner similar to carrying physical weight.”

As lawyers counsel clients about the costs of pursuing conflict resolution options that do or do not encourage transparency and personal responsibility, we would do well to include educating our clients about the hidden but predictable costs to physical and emotional health of choosing options that encourage or require  keeping burdensome secrets under wraps.

Forming Optimistic “Memories of the Future”

A new study reported in Scientific American suggests that active imagining of happy future scenarios creates more lasting memories than imagining gloomy futures.

In the Harvard research study, participants were guided to imagine a wide array of possible future scenarios tailored to their own circumstances, and then tested over intervals to determine how long memories of those imagined futures persisted.

Researchers discovered that short-term retention of happy and unhappy scenarios was identical. One day later, however, the details of negative simulations were much more difficult to recall than the details of positive or neutral simulations.

“These findings are consistent with what is known about negative memories for actual past events, which also tend to fade more rapidly than positive ones. Szpu­nar and his colleagues hypothesize that the emotion associated with a future simulation is the glue that binds together the details of the scenario in memory. As the negative emotion dissipates, so, too, does the integrity of the remembered future. So the negative versions of the future fade away with time, and the positive versions endure—leaving, on balance, an overly rosy vision of what’s to come. But that may not be a bad thing. People who suffer from depression and other mood disorders tend to not only ruminate on negative events from the past but also spin out gloomy scenarios for the future.”

Lawyers work with people in conflict who often live with situational depression. We are very familiar with the tendency of such clients to ruminate about gloomy future prospects. This study provides another strand of evidence for the importance of divorce coaching by mental health professionals trained in narrative conflict resolution modalities. Coaches help clients imagine positive futures during periods of unwanted, sometimes chaotic conflict-related change. The conclusions of this study suggest that working with coaches on restorying may help clients to create lasting positive “memories” that have more staying power than the anxious and fear-ridden scenarios produced during depressed rumination.

Another reason why lawyers working with clients to resolve personal conflicts can benefit from team service delivery that includes skilled ally-coaches.

What does Informed Choice Mean in the Age of Neuroscience?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education,  we are on the threshold of a culture war beyond anything the Tea Party has yet dreamed.  Free will has long perplexed philosophers and theologians, and now neuroscience is entering the fray.

“For centuries, the idea that we are the authors of our own actions, beliefs, and desires has remained central to our sense of self. We choose whom to love, what thoughts to think, which impulses to resist. Or do we?

Neuroscience suggests something else. We are biochemical puppets, swayed by forces beyond our conscious control. So says Sam Harris, author of the new book, Free Will (Simon & Schuster), a broadside against the notion that we are in control of our own thoughts and actions. Harris’s polemic arrives on the heels of Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Who’s In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (HarperCollins), and David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Pantheon), both provocative forays into a debate that has in recent months spilled out onto op-ed and magazine pages, and countless blogs.

What’s at stake? Just about everything: morality, law, religion, our understanding of accountability and personal accomplishment, even what it means to be human. Harris predicts that a declaration by the scientific community that free will is an illusion would set off ‘a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution.'”

For lawyers involved in client-centered conflict resolution work, the requirement that our clients engage in fully informed choice/informed consent is a core value as well as an ethical mandate.  But our traditional explication of what informed consent actually means arises from an 18th century rationalist vision of how the human brain makes decisions and choices.  Discoveries during the past decade depict a brain driven by emotion, not reason, and the implications of this growing body of research challenge us to re-examine old ideas about informed choice.   If we are serious about deep and durable resolution of personal disputes, we will require new techniques to ensure that solutions reflect fully considered client needs and priorities, not immediate emotional reactions.  These techniques will pass muster only if we begin with premises that honor biological realities and recruit the full potential of our triune primate brains.

The programs of the Integrative Law Institute explore these and other ethical challenges for lawyers in the era of “neuro-resolution.”

Hardwired for Altruism?

Social Darwinism seems to be dying the “death of a thousand cuts,” as more and more research confirms our primate nature includes a strong dose of hardwired altruism and other “pro-social” emotions.

For instance:  in a 2011 study, female chimpanzees were offered a choice between two tokens of different colors.  The “selfish”  token gave the chimp a reward.   The “generous” token gave the same reward but also bestowed it on an observing, unrelated female chimp who might not even have been looking as the choice was made.  The female chimps more often chose the pro-social token, whether or not the observer showed any interest.  In fact, efforts by the observer to pressure the “decider” discouraged generosity.

Interesting for us conflict resolution professionals to ponder this experiment as we devise techniques for encouraging reciprocal generosity at the negotiating table.

The article is:

Spontaneous Pro-Social Choice by Chimpanzees”

Horner, V.J., Cartera, D., Suchack, M., de Waal, F.B.M., PNAS, Vol. 108 (33), August 2011, 13847–13851.

Our Brains Want to Control Anger and Aggression

In a new study researchers found that when insulted to the point of anger, we humans experience activation in the areas of the brain associated with negative emotions and arousal (the limbic brain) but that at the same time, healthy brains experience similar arousal in the parts of the frontal lobes that regulate emotion and provide cognitive control over reactions.  Thus there is  tension and interplay between our urge to let the anger rip, and our thinking brain’s wish to remain in control.

This provides cues  for conflict resolution professionals about how to help our clients recognize and manage anger and other negative emotions during negotiations.  In later posts we’ll direct you to research and writing about techniques for quieting the aroused limbic brain and for helping the cognitive brain in its efforts to calm the storm.

The study is:

“Self Control and Aggression”

Denson, T. F., Dewall, C., Finkle, E. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 21 (1), February 2012, 20-25

A Conversation About ILI with carlMichael Rossi

Listen to a conversation between me and carlMichael Rossi in which I describe the lawyer’s role in conflict resolution from a human systems perspective, and  introduce the new Integrative Law Institute at Commonweal.  carlMichael is the creator of the online magazine, The World of Collaborative Practice.

Welcome to the Integrative Law Institute at Commonweal

This page is under construction.

Stay tuned for:

  • regular updates about frontline research discoveries in neuroscience, positive and behavioral psychology, neuroscience, and much more…
  • translated into practical tools that lawyers, mediators, and others in the legal  field can use immediately to deepen our conflict resolution work with clients,
  • a calendar of workshops and other events teaching legal professionals how to address human conflicts constructively, not solely as legal problems, but across the many dimensions in which conflict impacts the lives of people experiencing it;
  • weekend workshops for lawyers who want to reclaim professional vision and satisfaction;
  • and news about the Integrative Law Institute’s MCLE courses that satisfy state continuing education requirements and  can lead to certification as an Integrative Lawyer.