By Steven G. Mehta

We usually associate flexing your muscles with a show of strength.  Sometimes we also associate people who are clenching their muscles as people who are trying very hard.  A recent study has confirmed this belief by showing that muscular tension isn’t merely a side-effect of willpower, it actually helps bolster our self-control [pdf]. Based on  five studies, Iris Hung at the National University of Singapore and Aparna Labroo at the Booth School of Business showed that various forms of muscle flexion, from fist clenching to calf muscle tightening helped participants to perform better such as enduring pain and resisting short term gains (e.g. snack food) in order satisfy a long-term gain of better health.

The research showed that the muscle flexing didn’t work when the issue being considered was not important.  For example, if losing weight wasn’t important, then muscle flexing didn’t help to decrease unhealthy snacking.  According to the researchers, flexing muscles only appears to augment willpower rather than changing motivations and attitudes.

Now how does muscle clenching affect mediation, you say? Well, mediators usually are motivated to settle the case.  Perhaps they will experience some pain during the process such as dealing with an angry or frustrated client.  Perhaps they will experience a client that refuses to recognize reality.  During those times, flexing muscles will help with the mediator’s willpower to handle the situation calmly.

For negotiators, perhaps flexing muscles will help to resist taking a deal when you firmly believe that you might be able to do better by waiting a little longer in the mediation.

Regardless,  willpower is a critical part of a negotiator and mediator’s toolbox.  Increasing that willpower can’t be all that bad.