In 1990, some psychology experiments conducted and reported by Jonathan Schooler and Tonya Engster-Schooler suggested that giving a verbal account of an incident tended to impair future visualisation of what was described(1). Such information questioned the sense of taking witness statements when the witness was later asked to identify a suspect. Those who did not provide a verbalisation of what happened were better able to successfully identify a suspect subsequently. The phenomenon of verbal overshadowing has been replicated but it is not always clear what conditions must be met.
There are obvious implications for investigations, but what about mediation ? Most mediation processes require the parties to provide some kind of description of what has taken place. Indeed, most approaches to mediation believe it is essential to ‘get it off your chest’, and that such a process will prove cathartic and therefore better enable the parties to plan a more mutually enjoyable future. Some processes even require the parties to write down what happened and to read this account to the other party.
In option development the mediator asks the parties to be creative and to consider widely what solutions might work. This is a place where parties can arrive at impasse – having used a lot of energy describing the behaviour of the other party there is little ‘left in the tank’ for the more difficult work of designing a future that does not currently exist.
Faced with this, the mediator will probably appeal to the parties to ‘look outside the box’, to ‘imagine’ what might work and to reflect on ‘how it might be seen differently’. These are all visualisations rather than verbalisations, and if the theory is true, the parties’ ability to visualise will be impaired by the earlier verbalisations.
What to do ? As radical as it may seem, dispensing with verbal descriptions of past behaviour may be a start, leaving the parties’ visualisation ability in good health for seeking solutions. Perhaps another approach might be to have the parties draw or sketch what has happened rather than describing it. Maybe speaking is over-rated anyhow, and more instinctive, intuitive methodologies are needed.
If so, neuroscience research on innovation may be of interest. Here’s how to get that sought-after ‘aha’ moment: work really hard, get stuck, think about something completely different and walk away from the problem. The benefits of a wandering mind are clear at last!
(1)Schooler J. and Engster-Schooler T. “Verbal overshadowing of visual memories: some things are better left unsaid”. Cognitive Psychology. 22: 36–71. Jan 1990.
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By Brendan Schutte, Workplace/Employment Mediator Trainer