Business As Usual 5 - The Interplay of Reason and Emotion

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

Spring 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video examines the common misconception that conflicts should be handled "rationally," and that emotions should be minimized, ignored or overridden. Emotions and other non-rational thought processes are an inherent part of all conflicts and decision making processes and need to be explicitly dealt with as such. Several ideas are given for doing so.

Things to Think About and Discuss:

  • What is the “proper balance” between non-rational and rational drivers of decisions? .
  • How do we attain that balance within our own decision-making processes?
  • How do we attain that balance at the group or even national level?

And some more questions that seem particularly relevant now post election in the US are:

  • Why do some people make decisions that are counter to their own interests?
  • How can we help people sort out true facts from "fake facts" and propaganda?
  • How do we persuade people in what is being called the "post-fact" era that facts really do matter?  Or don't they?

You can share your thoughts on these question in Discussion 5. 

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Full Transcript:

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess with part five of my “Business As Usual” video series. This time I want to look at the relationship between rationality and emotions in conflict resolution and decision-making.

I’ve been teaching a class at the University of Colorado on conflict skills. At the beginning of the semester, I ask students what they’re good at when they engage in conflict, and what they’re not good at – what they might like to learn how to do better. A very common answer that I get is that they feel that they get far too emotional, or non-rational, in conflicts and they want to stop doing that. They want to be able to think more rationally and make decisions without the influence of emotions. 

So what they think is that they need to put a box around emotions and what I’m calling here non-rational thought. By “non-rational thought” I am making a reference to such things as intuition and stereotypes and beliefs that are not based on any sort of causal relationship-- at least not any explicitly known causal relationship but rather, “just feelings.” So they feel like they want to put a box around such things and ideally shrink them so they can be overridden or ignored in the decisions that they need to make and in the conflicts they engage in.

Their fear, of course, is that emotions will run rampant and they will have a big blowup and scream and yell and cry and emotions will completely overrun any reason or rational decision-making in conflict situations.Neither of these outcomes are good of course. The notion that you can overwhelm emotions with reason isn’t even particularly realistic.

We spend a week dealing with the relationship between reason and emotions in that class, and I’m going to do it here and about three or four minutes I hope.

What I teach is both aspects of decision-making and conflict are always present. You can’t possibly subsume one or the other – they are both there at all times. Most often, however emotions and non-rational thought influence our rational judgments more than the other way around. I talk about a monograph written by a friend of ours ,Mari Fitzduff, which is called “Introduction To Neuroscience For The Peace Builder.” (You can find the citation to this above in the referenced resources area.)

In that monograph, Mari talks about emotions being a lot like an elephant and its trainer or rider, where the rider is symbolic of rational thought and the elephant is symbolic of emotional and non-rational thought. The elephant is much stronger and more powerful, of course, so if it decides to do something that the trainer doesn’t want it to do, it is likely going to do it anyway, and the trainer won’t have any control. On the other hand, the trainer does exert some control, and if he cajoles the elephant, and works with it carefully, he can usually get it to do what he wants it to do.

Similarly, in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast And Slow, thinking is non-rational, or emotional thought and thinking slow is rationality. In that book too, Kahneman makes it clear that both modes of thought are essential and unavoidable.

One of the key ideas in Mari Fitzduff’s monograph is “for change to happen, we need to be both emotionally and rationally engaged.”  She goes on to say that:

Many of us [peacebuilders] have filing cases full of possible ‘rational’ approaches to all of the conflicts in which we are working. However, for people to actually approach that filing cabinet, and its possible solutions, they also need to be emotionally motivated to do so, which is often a harder process to manufacture than any reasoning in favor of particular solutions.” (p.8)

So going back to the previous slide, the elephant has to be emotionally inclined to do what the rider is asking it to do. Otherwise, it is going to go off on its own. So we have to engage with the emotions as well as the reason in any effective conflict resolution or decision-making process.

When I teach this in my skills class, I spend most of the week using a metaphor of Yellowstone National Park. I show a picture of the geyser Old Faithful and talk about how that is a metaphor for an explosion of emotions. Then I liken what you see at Yellowstone to Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen’s book Difficult Conversations. They talk about three different layers in any difficult conversation. They actually call them different “conversations,” but I find it less confusing to talk about three different layers in one conversation.

They say that at the top, which I show metaphorically as the top of Yellowstone Canyon, there is the “what happened layer.” This is the obvious layer--the thing that you see if you’re just looking at the surface. But under the what happened layer is the feelings layer, which is what you see if you’re paying attention to the emotions. Underneath that is what they call the identity layer, and I add to that security and justice. They say that when there are attacks to a person’s identity, that arouses strong feelings, which influences what happens on the surface layer – what you see in the superficial conversation.

So their argument is that in order to have an effective difficult conversation, you have to start down at the identity layer to stop the pressure from building up and a possible eruption from occurring at the surface. They say you have to focus first on this identity layer to determine if a person’s identity is threatened, and if it is, to fix that first, to prevent the strong feelings that would cause an emotional outburst. I add in security and justice in the bottom layer because I think attacks on these can also lead to the same sort of explosion as attacks that to identity will lead to.

So we spend an entire week talking about how you can identify and deal with attacks to identity, security, and justice in order to indeed, control, or at least have influence over, the feelings layer, which will then enable you to make the what happens layer more to your liking. So the influence goes both ways from the bottom to the middle to the top and then back down again in cycles.
The bottom line here is that you need to engage all three layers-- including emotions and the non rational thought, if you are going to prevent an explosion and be able to deal with disputes and conflicts rationally and emotionally at the same time.

Once again I want to end with some questions.  They are:

  • What is the “proper balance” between non-rational and rational drivers of decisions?
  • How do we attain that balance within our own decision-making processes?
  • How do we attain that balance at the group or even national level?

I hope you will engage with these on the discussion board! Thanks!

Referenced Resources:

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