Interpersonal Problem-Solving


When two or more parties have to solve a problem together, their judgment is often clouded by avoidable conficts and emotional tensions. We try to develop methods that help them to reformulate the problem towards a win-win situation, using methods such as emotional management, empathetic understanding of the other's perspective, and systematic analysis of the preconceptions underlying the problem.

Researchers: Sabharwal, Holbrouck, Stewart, Heylighen


Improving interpersonal problem-solving through emotional management and empathy


The typical approach to problem-solving until now has been to focus either on the individual level (one person needs to solve a problem) or on the collective level (a large group of people need to solve a shared problem). In both cases, conflicts can be simply avoided: individually, because we assume that an individual is not in conflict with himself (although that is not always obvious); collectively, because we can aggregate the divergent opinions though voting or some other "collective intelligence" procedure. When there are 2, 3, 4, or 5 people, however, voting may either lead to no decision (when the votes are evenly divided), or to a decision where a single vote can push the decision in one way or another, thus suppressing the will of the majority minus 1, leaving the losing party with strong resentment.
In such cases, rather than simply aggregating different opinions, and hoping that the law of large numbers will suppress the effect of meaningless fluctuations, we need a more active or constructive method of synthesizing opposing visions. The ideal is to arrive at a win-win result, i.e. an outcome where all parties benefit. This typically requires a redefinition of the problem, because in the cases of conflict the problem is an outcome that one party sees as a gain, another party sees as a loss, and therefore the parties cannot reach agreement about which option to choose. The reformulation of the problem should turn a zero-sum game into a positive-sum one.
Such reformulation is often very difficult to achieve because of emotional arousal: since the solution proposed by one party is viewed as a loss by the other party, any push for this solution is experienced as a threat to that party's position. Our natural instinct is to respond to threat by arousal, i.e. a preparation for the fight or flight response mediated by the stress hormone adrenalin (or epinephrin).
 As evidenced by a number of psychological experiments, arousal leads to a narrowing of perception, because  attention becomes more focused on the perceived causes and effects of the threat, while becoming less sensitive to the wider context. Moreover arousal will lead to a more agressive or assertive stance, where one's own position is defended more vehemently. Such assertive action will be experienced as more threatening by the other party, who will get more aroused, and therefore react more aggressively in turn.
This positive feedback leads to a spiral of escalating conflict, where the parties become ever more aroused, more narrow in their focus, and less ready to compromise or to consider an alternative viewpoint. As a result, the problem appears ever more unsolvable. As an example, we may think about marital conflicts ending in divorce, or the on-going conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
This analysis of the vicious cycle suggests the following strategies to improve problem-solving:
  • reducing arousal by emotional management or regulation
  • increasing empathy, i.e. the ability to see the problem from the other party's perspective
  • reformulating the problem so that the new goal would be seen as beneficial by all parties


Emotional management may be achieved via different strategies, such as:
making people more aware of the effects of emotional arousal, so that they are less taken by surprise when they become aroused
  • suppression: simply repressing the emotion when it arises
  • relaxation: focusing the mind on something calming so as to let the arousal diminish
  • mindfulness: i.e. teaching people to detach themselves more from their emotions, in the sense of really experiencing them, but not going along with them, i.e. feeling them but not being controlled by them
Empathy is a more cognitive approach, where people need to try to conceive how the situation looks from the other's party point of view, and reason from that position in order to better understand the arguments and actions of the other party. The ability for empathy is probably to some degree inborn: several theorists have postulated that humans, as uniquely social animals, have a brain ready to develop a  theory of mind. Frank's latest research, which he presented in an ECCO seminar a couple of months ago, aims to uncover the particular areas of the brain used for inferring other people's goals, intentions and beliefs, and thus the neurophysiological basis of empathy.
But some people are clearly more empathetic than others, even though they probably have the same brain structure. One plausible factor is the security of attachment to the mother in childhood: individuals who experienced secure attachment are intrinsically more self-confident, less anxious, and  more open to experience. Therefore, they will be less prone to undergo the mechanism of feeling threatened -> arousal -> narrowing of perception -> reduced capacity for empathy -> more aggressive stance
Such "talent for empathy" seems a pretty stable personality attribute that is hard to change. However, it is likely that people can to some degree be taught to become more empathetic, by explaining what empathy is, and how the same problem can be perceived differentlty  by different people. Researching the best way to teach empathy seems a very promising approach to conflict management, but it requires first a better unnderstanding of how empathy really functions.
The last strategy, reformulating the problem into a positive-sum game, is as yet the least clear one. But this is the domain that is most directly connected to our on-going ECCO research into synergy, stigmergy, problem-formulation, mind-mapping, etc.