Priming for best results in Dispute Resolution

I have recently come across the notion of “priming” clients for dispute resolution. We all have our own style, our own way of approaching conflict and working with others to assist them to resolve their disputes. As we gain experience and confidence, we develop a set of strategies in our tool box, and an innate ability to determine which of these is appropriate in differing situations. The success of our intervention is often based on unconscious factors that influence behaviour and decision-making. The use of these unconscious factors has been described as ‘priming’ the client, and it is some of these factors that I wish to suggest are crucial to the work of successful professionals in this area.

When we work with clients in family disputes, we are initially presented with what they want to tell us on the conscious and intellectual level, often consisting of the substantive issues of the dispute. We then proceed to use our questioning skills to unpack and explore the more emotional and vaguely felt problems and aspects of the dispute. With experience, it is this juggle between the presenting and underlying stories, the demands at the objective level, and the personal psychological needs at the subjective level, that we expertly manage to bring about growth of a new story or perspective, and the development of potential future focused solutions.

It has recently been suggested that priming is a complex phenomenon, and can exert an unintended, significant and passive influence on the interpretation of behaviour.[i]

Psychological priming

Psychological priming is where individual behaviour is guided by the unconscious mental system. Exposure to an external stimulus, such as words, objects or pictures, triggers implicit memories or information, which in turn activates particular feelings, thoughts or behaviours. This stimulus sits outside the conscious awareness, in the stores of accumulated knowledge built up through experience. The thought processes and behaviours are passive, and the individual is not aware of them and therefore unlikely to be able to control them. [ii] The most obvious example would be the subliminal messages used by advertisers in marketing and consumer campaigns. The repetition of behaviour between a couple, experienced over a long period of time, could result in an unconscious pattern of interaction that has become passive or unconscious, and very difficult to identify or change.

Working in the area of dispute resolution, priming could be used to manipulate the various intangible factors to promote discussion and decision-making. The words chosen, the questions asked, the skills of reframing and paraphrasing, could all be used to influence the experience and outcome for the participants. This could result in positive or negative effect, and the professional must appreciate not only the triggers that are being used or may be useful when working with family law clients, but also their own unconscious triggers and how these impact on the overall situation.

Setting the scene

There are other types of ‘priming’ that are constantly at play in this setting. Our preparation for dispute resolution is crucial in promoting the spirit of resolution and hope for a good outcome. Attention to the surroundings, the arrangements put in place to ensure safety and comfort, the meet and greet process that can put a client at their ease, the facilitation of full disclosure and the flow of communication-are all different priming activities that can have a big impact on the outcome.[iii]

Conflict often brings with it negative priming. Most clients have a negative attitude towards conflict, based on their past experiences, upbringing, television and social media. This tends to associate conflict with stress and anxiety, and can lead to poor behaviour, and increase the likelihood of competitive and adversarial approaches to conflict. [iv]

Positive priming can neutralise or minimise the effect of negative priming that often goes hand in hand with conflict. Some suggestions might include positive role modelling from the professional, focusing on agreement and decision-making rather than the dispute; using language that emphasizes the value of being open-minded and fair, the need for creativity and flexibility; looking for positive outcomes in the future rather than investigating in detail the problems of the past.

Face to face contact and reflection

Many of us have had those amazing experiences when a session comes to a cross roads, and all of a sudden there is a shift and the atmosphere changes from positional and negative, to more compromising, and suggesting hope for the future! This often follows an interaction, facial expression, or comment, that supports a perceptual shift by one or both of the participants. A simple example is the acknowledgement that someone is a good parent, or that there is no intention to cut a parent out of a child’s life, or that there are strategies for this to be recognized by the legal system! Something changes, and there is suddenly the possibility of rapport, or a different assessment of the sincerity or genuine intentions of a party, or of a more favourable outcome. [v]

Professionals can use priming techniques to have a significant influence over the course of the process of dispute resolution. They can encourage participants to be open, co-operative and accepting. Reframing can be employed to prime parties to consider issues from a range of perspectives. The way in which information is presented influences the way the brain processes information, may even mitigate anxiety, and prime the brain towards resolution. [vi]


It is fascinating to think of the influence that we as professionals have in the dispute resolution process. We have a responsibility to ensure that we understand the power of our role and how best to use this power to achieve the best outcome, particularly for children in parenting matters. The notion of priming is interesting for what it says about the clients that we are working with, but also for what it says about our own conflict management styles, and what unconscious behaviours and triggers we bring to this process.

I came across these ideas in an article by Professor Tania Sourdin and Amanda Hioe in the December 2016 edition of The Arbitrator & Mediator, put out by Resolutions Institute. I would be very interested to share your thoughts and experiences around these ideas, and invite you to contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions to commence a conversation about how this notion and the impact on your practice in dispute resolution.


[i] “Mediation and Psychological Priming” by Professor Tania Sourdin and Amanda Hioe The Arbitrator & Mediator December 2016 page 76 to 89 at page 77

[ii] ibid page 78

[iii] ibid page 79

[iv] ibid page 82

[v] ibid page 83

[vi] ibid page 84

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