​​​​Located in Cranberry Township, PA

Since 1983

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It wasn’t a made-for-TV trick. Her anguish was authentic – expressed in a wail.

“I feel like I can never do anything right! I get blamed for everything! If (call him “Andy”) doesn’t want to talk to you, it’s my fault. If I buy his shin guards for soccer, you tell me I got the wrong ones!” Protesting.

His resentment was also authentic, nearly palpable – expressed with growing agitation. “That’s not what happened. I didn’t say you got the wrong shin guards; I said why can’t I be involved in making that choice? You take everything I say as this huge criticism.” Denying. Defending. Blaming.

“In the past, I always got their stuff for sports. I was just doing what I’ve always done.” Justifying.

“You’re cutting me out of something I want to be involved in.”  Accusing.

“I just want to quit being blamed for every little decision.” Pleading now.

  1. What Happens When We Get Angry? sciencedaily.com, June 1, 2010.
  2. How Fear Works. science.howstuffowrks.com; Activation of the Human Sympathetic Nervous System: Effects on Memory Performance, Ramsey, Alicia et al. , University of Wisconsin Departments of Psychology and Statistics (2012).
  3. How Anger Works. science.howstuffworks.com.
  4. Ibid.
  5. I know I promised you make-up sex. Be patient. Enjoy the foreplay.
  6. Catharsis.  McRaney, David. Youarenotsosmart.com (2010). Essentially, almost my entire review of the history of catharsis theory is a paraphrase of the cited article.
  7. The author’s wife (and first reader of this article) points out that the Bushman, et al.’s research subjects were unrelated students, not intimates like marriage partners. Would the experiment hold up if the subjects were H and W? As yet, I have been unable to find any research on the exact point. But the fact that the question is raised signifies the barnacle-like hold that catharsis theory holds in the popular consciousness. People want to believe that venting works to improve a conflict situation.
  8. I realize that the word “rational” describing the parties agreement, connotes a value judgment. Certainly, in this case, the entire collaborative team would agree with my assessment. 
  9. I refer to my academic research, not the fact that my wife refused make-up sex. I still love you, dear.
  10. Generally consisting of the amydala which regulates emotions, the nucleus accumbens which controls the release of dopamine, the ventral tegmental area (TVA) which actually releases the dopamine, the cerebellum which controls muscle function, and the pituitary gland which release beta-endorphins which decrease pain; oxytocin which increases feelings of trust; and vasopressin, which increases bonding. This description comes from What Happens During Orgasm?, science.howstuffworks.com, but for a more complete understanding of how these brain parts function in myriad ways outside the sexual context, I recommend reading the book How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer, published by Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt 2009. 
  11. Unlike me. Just because I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night,  I may not actually have the ability or resources to survey the medical and psychological literature on these vast topics. But I enjoyed my chaotic research ride and learned a lot, in spite of my clumsy  techniques which, according to my intimates, may have included some experimental venting.
  12. What is Neuro-Literacy and Why Should You Care, Pauline H. Tressler, Family Lawyer Magazine, January, 2012

“And I want to quit being attacked every time I ask a question. You’re such a negative person. This is why we’re getting a divorce.” Defending. Accusing. Escalating.

And so it went on for about five minutes.    

What was the setting? A custody exchange? A counseling session? A conciliation? Mediation? A collaborative meeting?  Andy’s birthday party? Full marks if you guessed the only one of these choices which seems wildly inappropriate on the surface. It happened in a collaborative meeting. Here is how it went down.

Husband (H), Wife (W), their respective counsel, (HC) and (WC), and the neutral divorce coach (N) were trying to reach a parenting plan for Andy. W had already made very significant movement toward a true shared custody arrangement which H insisted upon. Yet there seemed to be some non-specific but clearly emotion-laden factors on both sides preventing closure. The parties, and especially W, had expressed on several occasions her feeling that insufficient progress had been achieved through several meetings, for which she was tending to blame the collaborative process.

The Team could taste an agreement. It was right there in front of the parties. But every time an attorney or the neutral gently urged the next step, one of the parties derailed the discussion with some sniping comment. Both counsel and the neutral coach reminded the parties of the importance of remaining positive, using “I– statements,” their undertaking in the Participation Agreement to be respectful, and various other shibboleths of the Collaborative art. Nothing seemed to work, and the meeting was getting out of control. It looked like the work of several months was about to disappear down the drain.

In apparent desperation, WC spontaneously allowed herself an intuitive leap, plunging the case over Niagara Falls. 

“I’m going to suggest something that the rest of the Team may yell at me for later. But I’m going to do it anyway. You two are blaming the collaborative process for taking too long and not getting enough done. But it’s up to you. HC and I could reach an agreement on this in five minutes. But it’s your process. It seems like you have some things to say to one another. So I’m going to suggest that you two just go ahead and tear into one another for the next five minutes and get it out in the open. We’ll be quiet. Maybe, after that, we’ll be able to figure something out.”

HC and N looked at one another, stunned, but somehow powerless to voice an objection. So WC proceeded: “Who wants to go first?” No one spoke. Gesturing to W, WC said, “Why don’t you begin?” And so began the exchange quoted in the preamble.

The most vexing issue in the case – the parenting plan – settled about 20 minutes later. Fairly.

Before you start yelling at your computer screen, or scribbling an angry “Dear so-called Editor” letter, please note that I did not say, “As the result of this off-beat approach, the case settled.”  But it did settle – and quickly – right after the Team breached all conventional collaborative dogma. At a minimum, and off the top of my head:

1) The maneuver encouraged negativity

2) One colleague went off on her own without prior consultation with the Team

3) The “safe container” was deliberately breached

4) Fight, flight or play-dead chemicals were deliberately released into the brain, such as would typically inhibit reasoned decision making

5) Feel free to add to this list of collaborative offenses.

So what happened? Did the rapid, fair settlement following this episode suggest an error in collaborative dogma, or at least introduce a new, acceptable technique to be used in appropriate (and probably limited) circumstances? Was the outcome fortuitous, achieved in spite of a deliberately courted and unnecessary risk; sort of like getting home safely, in spite of being so drunk you don’t remember how you got there?

WC’s thought was that something happened that could be analogized to catharsis. In her view, W and H got their negativity out of their systems, so they were free to advance to something positive. HC wondered if the situation could be compared to make-up sex, specifically in relation to chemical changes in the brain. He assumed an initial release of cortisol during the “mad” phase, but wondered what happens next that apparently causes us to fall back into one another’s arms – literally, in the case of make-up sex, or metaphorically, in the context of a collaborative process? N, a very experienced coach, was skeptical that this new alchemy would produce gold. A day after the meeting, she directed HC and WC to an article by Pauline Tessler, entitled What is Neuro-Literacy and Why Should You Care?, published in Family Lawyer Magazine.

With a certain inevitability, I felt an article for The Trend coming on. My truth-seeking interest was aroused, reached a plateau during the hardworking research phase, climaxed with the realization that there might be plausible science-based answers to the questions, and resolved through the process of writing about my investigative journey, as follows . . .

Understanding more about anger seemed like a good place to start. After all, we had explicitly endorsed the venting of anger in our collaborative session. What had we set in motion?

When we get angry, the heart rate, arterial tension and testosterone production increase, cortisol decreases, and the left hemisphere of the brain becomes more stimulated.1 Oops, there goes the assumption that cortisol would certainly be released during our venting episode. Cortisol is sometimes referred to as “the stress hormone.” It is released (along with adrenaline) by the adrenal glands in response to fear (not anger), as part of the fight, flight or freeze (play dead) reaction to threatening stimuli. Short term effects of massive cortisol are known to include increased heart rate and respiration, diversion of blood to large and smooth muscles, and impairment of working memory until balance (or homeostasis) is restored. The length of time involved in the dissipation of excess cortisol and adrenaline varies from individual to individual, but is generally believed to be at least 30 minutes.2

If fear = cortisol = temporary inability to engage in higher level reasoning (as is commonly believed by collaborative practitioners), can we infer from the fact that H and W reasoned to a logical conclusion soon after fileting one another that their predominant emotion during the exchange was (cortisol-decreasing) anger, rather than (cortisol-releasing) fear?  Might this hypothesis support (or at least permit) the use of our catharsis tactic?

Put it this way: My review of the scientific, quasi-scientific and collaborative literature suggests caution. Make that extreme caution.

Consider these common goals of the expression of anger:

1) Correcting wrongdoing, or showing the wrongdoer that the behavior was inappropriate

2) Maintaining the relationship, or addressing the interpersonal problems that caused you to get angry.

3) Demonstrating power, which may be a way to ensure that this trigger doesn’t happen again.3

Venting, as a technique for expressing anger, might arguably serve goals one and three. Those goals appear to be susceptible of such one-way communication. Goal two perhaps implies a more muted expression of anger, one which contains an invitation to discussion.

“In studies, respondents have identified talking things over with the offender as the most appropriate way to deal with anger. It’s not just venting or yelling at the person; it’s telling them why you’re angry in a way that moves toward a solution. This method of expression is why anger can sometimes be good for us. We’re moved to address a negative in our life and make it a positive.”4

The first time I read that sentence I thought, “Aha, so much for catharsis!” Then I read it a few more times, and I thought, “Ah crap. This doesn’t prove anything.” I can accept that “talking things over . . . is the ‘most appropriate’ way to deal with anger.” But that’s not the same as saying it’s the only way. The next sentence is even more of a problem. It suggests that venting or yelling 1) cannot convey “why you are angry” or, at the very least, that venting cannot convey “why you are angry in a way that moves toward a solution.” Well, if finding a solution is predicated on “talking things over” and finding a different place to meet on some issue, can we not hypothesize that the act of venting, even if couched in terms unwelcome  to the sensitive ears of the “ventee”, may have the salutary effect of removing an impediment from the venter’s ability to move toward a solution?

We need to know more about catharsis theory.5  I first heard the word catharsis in one of two places, 10th grade English in which we were handed twenty words a week to learn to define, spell and use in a coherent sentence, or else in my first drama class. The latter seems more likely.

Catharsis was advanced by Aristotle in his Poetics. Aristotle disagreed with Plato who felt that drama “unbalanced” the citizenry. Aristotle held, to the contrary, that the release of pent up “energy or fluids,” as occurred following the build-up of suspense in a play, restored balance to the human condition, and was healthy, vicarious and safe.

The same notion informed Aristotle’s concept of the humours. If you were too choleric, melancholy, phlegmatic or sanguine, the goal was to restore the balance, or golden mean, which the ancient Greeks so revered. Purging the bad or excess humour was good. Medically, this sometimes meant draining blood from someone perceived to be overly sanguine.

A version of catharsis theory became part of psychology through the work of Sigmund Freud. “He believed your psyche was poisoned by repressed fears and desires, unresolved arguments and unhealed wounds. The mind formed phobias and obsessions around these bits of mental detritus. You needed to rummage around in there, open up some windows and let some fresh air and sunlight in.”6

By the 1990's the idea of  “letting off steam” to relieve anger was generally accepted. Hitting a punching bag or screaming into pillows were among the “safe” techniques used by psychologists. However, there were a number of psychologists who doubted whether venting anger was effective to release or reduce it. One of these, Professor Brad Bushman from Iowa State, devised a series of experiments.

As described by McRaney:    

In one of Bushman’s studies he divided 180 students into three groups. One read a neutral article. One read an article about a fake study which said venting anger was effective. The third group read about a fake study which said venting was pointless.

He then had the students write essays for or against abortion, a subject for which they probably had strong feelings. He told them the essays would be graded by fellow students, but they weren’t.

When they got there (sic) essays back, half were told their essays were superb.

The other half had this scrawled across the paper: “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!”

They then asked the subjects to pick an activity like play a game, watch some comedy, read a story, or punch a bag.

The results?

The people who read the article which said venting worked, and who later got angry, were far more likely to ask to punch the bag than those who got angry in the other groups. In all the groups, the people who got praised tended to pick non-aggressive activities.   

 . . .exposure to media messages in support of catharsis can affect subsequent behavioral choices. Angry people expressed the highest desire to hit a punching bag when they had been exposed to a (bogus) newspaper article claiming that a good, effective technique for handling anger was to vent it toward an inanimate object.
- Brad Bushman, Roy Baymeister and Angela Stack, from the study on catharsis

So far so good. Belief in catharsis makes you more likely to seek it out.

Now it gets really interesting. McRaney continues:

Bushman decided to take this a step further and let the angry people seek revenge. He wanted to see if engaging in cathartic behavior would extinguish the anger, if it would be emancipated from the mind.

The second study was basically the same, except this time when subjects got back their papers with “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!” they were divided into two groups.

The people in both groups were told they were going to have to compete against the person who graded their essay. One group first had to punch a bag, and the other group had to sit and wait for two minutes.

After the punching and waiting, the competition began.

The game was simple, press a button as fast as you can. If you lose, you get blasted with a horrible noise. When you win, blast your opponent. They could set the volume the other person had to endure, a setting between zero and 10 with 10 being 105 decibels.

Can you predict what they discovered?

On average, the punching bag group set the volume as high as 8.5. The timeout group set it to 2.47.

The people who got angry didn’t release their anger on the punching bag, it was sustained by it. The group which cooled off lost their desire for vengeance.

In subsequent studies where the subjects chose how much hot sauce the other person had to eat, the punching bag group piled it on. The cooled off group did not.

When the punching bag group later did word puzzles where they had to fill in the blanks to words like ch_ _e, they were more likely to pick choke instead of chase.

Bushman has been doing this research for a while, and it keeps turning up the same results.

If you think catharsis is good, you are more likely to seek it out when you get pissed. When you vent, you stay angry and are more likely to keep doing aggressive things so you can keep venting.

It’s drug-like, because there are brain chemicals and other behavioral reinforcements at work. If you get accustomed to blowing off steam, you become dependent on it.

The more effective approach is to just stop. Take your anger off of (sic) the stove. Let it go from a boil to a simmer to a lukewarm state where you no longer want to sink your teeth into the side of buffalo (sic).

Bushman’s work also debunks the idea of redirecting your anger into exercise or something similar. He says it will only maintain your state or increase your arousal level, and afterward you may be even more aggressive than if you had cooled off.

Still, cooling off is not the same thing as not dealing with your anger at all. Bushman suggests you delay your response, relax or distract yourself with an activity totally incompatible with aggression.

These results contradict any suggestion that hitting the punching bag would have beneficial effects because one might feel better after doing so (which is what advocates of catharsis often say). People did indeed enjoy hitting the punching bag, but this was related to more rather than less subsequent aggression toward a person…hitting a punching bag does not produce a cathartic effect: It increases rather than decreases subsequent aggression.
- Brad Bushman, Roy Baymeister and Angela Stack, from the study on catharsis

This research, which defines catharsis as some form of physical or psychological venting of aggression, clearly concludes (among many other important findings) that not even the “venter” benefits from the venting.7

So what happened with H and W, when they came to a rational agreement to share custody, minutes after taking each other to the woodshed?8  One idea is that they experienced something like make-up sex. What about that, huh? What does the literature say about that?

To clarify, the initial hypothesis was that something chemical happened in the brain during this argument/reconciliation process which would also occur in an argument/make-up sex scenario.

My research immediately encountered problems.9 First, there is no independent research which distinguishes the bodily changes that occur during sex, from those that occur during make-up sex. For that matter, make-up sex seems to be defined differently by its practitioners, with no   consensus. Then there are reported differences between how men and women experience make-up sex, but then again there are similarities, too.

I decided to take a step backward and try and begin with what happens to the brain during  sex. Turns out the literature seems hopelessly fixated on orgasms, which I suppose is logical, but nonetheless surprised me. In brief, nerves throughout the body transmit signals back to the brain along several neural routes. When the impulses reach the brain a lot happens.

Scientists in the Netherlands used PET scans to observe the brains of some gallant – and apparently uninhibited (or maybe well paid) –  volunteers (1) while resting, (2) while being “sexually stimulated” and (3) while having an orgasm. They wanted to see whether the pleasure centers of the brain,10 also termed the reward circuit, would “light up” during sexual activity, and if other areas would “shut down.” 

As synopsized by the article cited in the previous footnote:    

Interestingly, they discovered that there aren't too many differences between men's and women's brains when it comes to sex. In both, the brain region behind the left eye, called the lateral orbitofrontal cortex, shuts down during orgasm. Janniko R. Georgiadis, one of the researchers, said, "It's the seat of reason and behavioral control. But when you have an orgasm, you lose control" [source: LA Times]. Dr. Gert Holstege stated that the brain during an orgasm looks much like the brain of a person taking heroin. He stated that "95 percent is the same" [source: Science News].

There are some differences, however. When a woman has sex, a part of the brain stem called the periaqueductal gray (PAG) is activated. The PAG controls the "flight or fight" response. Women's brains also showed decreased activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, which deal with fear and anxiety. The team theorized that these differences existed because women have more of a need to feel safe and relaxed in order to enjoy sex. In addition, the area of the cortex associated with pain was activated in women, which shows that there is a distinct connection between pain and pleasure.

On the surface, these findings cast doubt on the theory that H and W, in coming together in a rational manner after reciprocal denunciations, experienced something akin to make-up sex, but that may be only because the research quoted emphasizes what happens during the orgasmic climax.And, in fairness, orgasm is implied when we think about make-up sex.

But, what if we contemplate some earlier stage of sexual activity, arousal for example: Could it be that all those pleasure centers of the brain were just glowing from a sort of abusive foreplay which,  when they reached agreement, had not yet become incandescent to the point where reason was impossible?  Of course, this line of thinking modifies the original hypothesis, but that’s OK, we’re seeking truth not vindication. 

But we are not going to find any definitive truth today. The deadline for this piece is at hand, and there is no thread which my research suggests would be fruitful. In the end, there is only conjecture about why H and W reached agreement as they did, when they did. I am satisfied that catharsis was not responsible, but I do not know what was. It feels if WC putted a golf ball toward the windmill. The timing was just right. The ball escaped the scything blades and came through to safety on the other side. Hole in one! Perhaps I should study next the proper role of intuition in the collaborative process, if it has one.

I think it best to leave the final word about allowing, not to mention introducing, emotional tempests in the collaborative meeting, to Pauline Tressler, who has the academic credentials to entitle her to an opinion.11

It follows that every communication between and among the lawyers and the parties in a case necessarily carries a biologically wired emotional substratum. Lawyers unsophisticated in the workings of mirror neurons may make the well-intentioned error of allowing distressed clients to unload on one another at settlement meetings, believing there is something constructive in what they call “catharsis.” Not so, neuroscience tells us. Each client, and everyone else in the room, will simulate via their own mirror neurons the intense emotions being expressed, and will experience in their own bodies and brains the “fight or flight or play dead” evolutionary defense program that strong emotion triggers. The possibility of creative problem solving disappears, neurally speaking, for quite some time following such a “catharsis.” For clients, another round of the same old fight also reinforces the implicit memory attractor patterns that register every shred of evidence confirming the other’s unworthiness of trust and respect, while diminishing the brain’s ability to notice disconfirming evidence of good faith that does not match the increasingly charged negative pattern.

If catharsis is counterproductive, should we instead instruct clients to “suck it up,” or adopt that strategy ourselves when frustrated or angry at someone else in the negotiating room? It turns out that won’t work well, either. Our facial muscles, body language and the timbre of our voices speak louder than words, communicating our actual feelings and contaminating the environment at the table. If the feelings are there, they will be read by every brain in the room and can silently undermine trust and cooperation.

How might practical neuro-literacy help us address more effectively the eruption of negative emotion during case-related communications?

We can learn “self scanning,” a technique for becoming aware of how various emotions express themselves uniquely in our own bodies. This can become an early warning system, alerting us that we are becoming anxious or irritated before the emotion reaches a volume that shuts down higher level cognitive processes like planning, creative imagination, and cause-and-effect analysis.

With a more nuanced awareness of our emotions as they play through body and mind, we can invoke self-soothing techniques that operate at the neural level to abort emotional “hijacking” of higher brain functions. Functional brain imaging studies show that meditation and similar awareness practices can modulate the effects that otherwise accompany negative emotional states.

We can teach clients simple techniques to soothe and avert emotional meltdowns, many of them involving sensory inputs associated with implicit memory patterns of relaxation, trust, and other desired states. Some of those associations may be uniquely personal, such as listening to a particular piece of music or experiencing a scent associated with a particular positive memory or looking at a photograph of a beloved child, while others may be shared by most of us—the positive effects of deep breathing, soothing touch, or of endorphins generated by taking a break for a short brisk walk.

Collaborative lawyers have employed these and similar techniques for nearly two decades. Now, hard science confirms that far from being touchy-feely ideas, these techniques work because of how our brain works. Strong emotions should neither be allowed to contaminate the safe space of the negotiating room, nor be excluded from the negotiation process. Learning how to manage them constructively is part of becoming neuro-literate.12

​© 2012 Mark A. Criss. All rights reserved