Adult Attachment and How It Impacts Mediation

attachment styles

Adult Attachment and How It Impacts Mediation

Human behaviour is fascinating. Whether you think someone’s outlook on life and actions are related to nature or nurture, if we can better understand why we do what we do, it can help us to make better decisions – or at least know why we may not make the best decisions.

As soon as we enter the world, we begin to form attachment-based relationships. First with our parents (or other primary caregivers) and then with other members of our family, friends and eventually our romantic partners, coworkers and other professionals. Psychologists have been studying attachment behaviour among children for decades. Only fairly recently have they started to look into adult attachment styles and how it might affect how we interact with others.

Adult attachment is not about an inability to wean oneself of infant, toddler or childlike behaviour; rather, it is a very brief overview into an aspect of human behaviour which impacts directly on conflict and the analysis and decision-making process at mediation. For those looking for a “meat and potatoes” blog post about mediation, please suspend your disbelief and read on. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In this blog post, I outline the three main adult attachment styles, how everyone has certain triggers, and why their reactions to such triggers are based on long-standing internal working models. From a mediation perspective, when conflicts invariably arise, we can calm the waters by knowing more about our own reactions to conflict and how other people respond.  

The Three Styles of Adult Attachment

Research into adult attachment styles offers some great lessons for mediation.

The vast majority of adults fall into one of three main attachment styles: anxious, avoidant and secure. At its most basic, anxious and avoidant attachment styles are the flip sides of the fight or flight instinct. A person with an anxious attachment style may fight or attack when triggered while a person with an avoidant attachment style finds comfort by escaping.  While these reactions may be off putting and seem odd to some people, they make perfect sense when taking into account the lived experience of another individual. The secure attachment style responds to triggers by taking things in stride, and adopting a more balanced and somewhat detached perspective. 

However, we should be careful not to stereotype attachment styles as individuals are much more complex than certain labels allow. Remember we’re speaking of deep-rooted motivations and reactions to triggers based on a certain working model that has been developed and refined over years and years of interactions. Use these general ideas of attachment style to think about what you’re seeing from a new and highly effective perspective.

Typical Behaviours of Each Attachment Style

 

Anxious: 

-vigilant to social cues.

-jump to conclusions quickly. 

-misinterpret emotions when quick to judge. 

-prone to keep score. 

-act with hostility when agitated.

-may use manipulation or game-playing. 

-relating to an avoidant person can intensify these features.

Avoidants:  

-repress emotions. 

-prone to negative thinking. 

-need an escape route when emotions run high.

-less likely to seek help from others.

-not able to translate verbal and nonverbal signals in day-to-day interactions.

Secures:

-less likely to be emotional or shut down when confronted by a threat. 

-more likely to view things in a positive light unless facts prove otherwise. 

-not as defensive in fights.

-less threatened by criticism. 

-effective communicators.

What Does This Mean For Mediation?

People with anxious attachment styles will likely be very nervous at mediation. They are often preoccupied with their relationships and tend to worry a lot. These people would benefit from small talk and being made to feel like they are liked personally,  even when involved in conflict.

People with avoidant attachment are more likely to be closed off from negotiation unless they’re made to feel comfortable. These are the type of people who may play hard…and keep things at arm’s length. If tensions rise, they will be more likely to close themselves off, participate less and become quiet, or even leave.

People with secure attachment styles will typically use effective communication and show warmth towards others, even if they are reserved.

What Does It All Mean?

You may not know the other party when you arrive at mediation. This is especially true of plaintiffs who you may be meeting for the first time. How can you expect to know something as complex as their inner working models or triggers? Realistically,  you probably can’t know this or discover it within the span of a few hours in a very unfamiliar and formal setting. You can simply be mindful that their reaction or lack thereof could be part of a defence mechanism that they cannot help.

However, as you spend more time, whether as counsel or as an insurance claims professional, there are greater chances that you may have already worked with other participants at mediation, be they counsel or other insurance claims professionals. You may know the other counsel, insurance claims professionals and/or the mediator well enough to get a sense of their communication and attachment needs. 

Plaintiff lawyers may have a chance to get to know the plaintiff well enough to understand their communication needs and attitude towards conflict. If so, it would be prudent to take what you’ve learned and speak to the plaintiff in ways that will soothe their attachment style. Defence lawyers presumably have spent some time with the plaintiff at examinations for discovery and may have a sense of the plaintiff’s attachment style which should be a factor when preparing opening remarks. Defence lawyers and their insurance clients may have worked together in the past. In these situations, each of the participants to this relationship have a leg up. Think about past interactions and how the individual reacted to surprises, conflict and other situations which you may encounter again at mediation.

You may consider asking yourself:

-how did the individual(s) behave in past interactions? 

-how did they handle surprises and/or conflict? 

-were there moments of friction where their reaction seemed off from your perspective? 

If these types of moments are likely to occur in the future, this may be where you have the greatest opportunity to improve your communication. By knowing how those with whom you are going to interact tend to react, you can give them what they may need to return to a state of calm where discussions can be most productive.

What’s important to remember is that the other party may have different communication needs than your own. To improve your chances of keeping discussions on track, you will need to be understanding of what those differences could mean. Moreover, knowing your own attachment style and triggers can help you accentuate your strengths and be aware of thought traps you are prone to falling into.

If you have an insecure attachment style, try to:

-avoid deviating from the main problem/issue at hand or generalizing the conflict.

-communicate your feelings and needs effectively.

-steer clear of personal attacks.

-stop ‘tit for tat’ negativity.

-avoid becoming withdrawn.

-keep the other person’s well being in mind.

If you have a secure attachment style, you may take things in stride but perhaps you will now look a little closer to others’ reactions to you and those in the room so that you can help calm their nerves, which is done by soothing their attachment style.

How To Soothe Attachment Styles: A Practical Perspective

Having a general idea of how each attachment style reacts to conflict gives you the opportunity to tailor your message and delivery. 

Let’s say an offer is presented which has a condition attached to it. You may say something in this scenario that normally leads to a productive discussion among secures, but in an anxious-avoidant-secure room, you will need to prepare for or shield yourself from the reactions. 

An anxious person may react to the offer by becoming visibly frustrated, changing the tone of their voice, becoming curt, or possibly even yell. They may “just be letting out steam” but from an attachment perspective, they are self-soothing and using protest behaviours such as yelling to meet their needs. An avoidant individual may become quiet, withdrawn or even leave the room. This individual may also become very negative and start working in a silo.

By allowing each person time to react, without adding your own reaction to their reaction, you are diffusing the situation. Know that the reaction typically has nothing to do with you but with the person’s attachment needs. This is why so many self-help books encourage people not to take things personally. Simply addressing the situation calmly may help resume talks. For example, acknowledge that you see they were not expecting this condition but explain that you tried your best to make a deal work and want to continue the discussion. All of the foregoing supports the proposition that the challenge at mediation is frequently separating the people from the problem.

Another example of soothing attachment styles could be the timing or itinerary of what is discussed. An anxious person may want to resolve all the tough stuff first. Avoidants may need to build trust first by tackling low hanging fruit before diving deeper. If people with conflicting attachment styles are sharing the room and compromise must occur, acknowledging their wants/needs and explaining why you may need to proceed in another way will at least help them to feel heard and understood.

Closing Thoughts

Regardless of their own individual attachment style, strong mediators will know that the principles of secure attachment are very helpful in mediation. Even if you find yourself too close to the situation to remain objective, a well-trained mediator will recognize how certain triggers can lead to specific reactions.

Fortunately, we have many strategies for helping parties get back to the goal that they probably both share – resolving a conflict in a way that is beneficial to them. When parties are within reach of a zone of agreement, a good mediator will help to diffuse tension, keep parties on task, and accentuate where parties find commonalities instead of differences. An even better mediator will facilitate diverging parties to reach a zone of agreement.

However you may relate to people in your life, choose a mediator who can be counted on to bring out the best of everyone at the table so you have the greatest opportunity to resolve the matter at mediation or narrow the issues or identify impediments to resolution and a path forward to eventual resolution. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vance Cooper, Toronto Mediator and ArbitratorVance Cooper is the principal of Cooper Mediation Inc. Vance devotes 100% of his professional time to mediating and arbitrating primarily personal injury and insurance cases. He serves as an arbitrator in loss transfer and party disputes under the Insurance Act. Vance is a Distinguished Fellow of the International Academy of Mediators, a Chartered Mediator of the ADR Institute of Canada and a Certified Mediator by the International Mediation Institute. He was  inducted to the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Academy of Distinguished Neutrals (CADN).

Vance can be reached at vance@coopermediation.ca or (647) 777-4011.

To schedule a mediation with Vance, visit: https://coopermediation.ca/vances-online-calendar/.



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