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By Steven G. Mehta

Meltdown!  The word has left an indelible mark on our psyche based upon the Japanese nuclear crisis.  But having truly seen and experienced the overwhelming problem the nuclear crisis is on this world, I cannot help but think that the term meltdown has been overused in our modern vocabulary; In addition, it has lost the significance of the true meaning until such an event crystalizes the true meaning of the word Meltdown.

According to the  meltdown means:

1. Severe overheating of a nuclear reactor core, resulting in melting of the core and escape of radiation.  2. Informal A disastrous or rapidly developing situation likened to the melting of a nuclear reactor core: “After several corporate meltdowns, only two reporters remain in [the] bureau” (David Fitzpatrick); 3. Informal An emotional breakdown.

How can a severe overheating of a nuclear reactor core be compared to “an emotional breakdown?”  It can’t.  But somehow in our society we have decided that the term meltdown is ok to say about a toddler, a teenager, a business, or a variety of other situations.

I think that one of the problems is that today, people are lax or lenient in allowing strong words to express a less than overwhelming emotion.  Take for example, the word “hate.”  People banter the term around all the time.  Entire websites are geared towards the word such as  The reality, just as meltdown is a powerful term, “hate” is too.  According to Merriam Webster, hate means “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”  Do we really have an intese hostility based out of fear or injury towards a mocha, a dog, a t.v. show, and so on?  The answer is no.  But the reality is that it is usually easier to say hate or meltdown than it is to figure out the true emotion.

I think that all of us, myself included, need to think about the words we use.  Words can create problems, words can help problems; and words — like tools — have a specific purpose that must be honored.

Perhaps our society’s desire to oversimplify all emotions, characteristics and things can be the root cause.  A person is moody — it must be depression.  Maybe he is just moody.  It is either black or white — but never gray.

The reality is that much of it is gray or some other color and many people only look at it in a black or white way.  In some sense, we are living in Pleasantville — a fictional black and white world that soon realizes that there is much life outside of the black and white and that although those other colors come with trouble and strife, they come with their innate beauty.

Mediation is often the multicolored world with parties that see black and white.  Our job as mediators is often to spray color into the neat world of Pleasantville and to allow the parties to see the color that may exist.


By Steven G. Mehta

One of the most famous speeches in the 20th century demonstrates the importance of the way that something is said as opposed to the words of what is said.  In mediation, negotiations, and all types of communication this statement is true.  It is not what you say, but how you say it.  President John F. Kennedy is a perfect example of this statement in his famous speech in Berlin.

First, let me play the original speech for you.

The import of the speech is clear.  Kennedy, in a time of turmoil and trouble lets the people of Berlin know that he is with them.  He made that speech to the people of Berlin while facing the Berlin Wall.  He has let them know that he is a citizen of Berlin and will stand with them.   To most people, this is a historical moment and a momentous time in history.  What is interesting to know is that his words did not convey that message.  Here is a humorous look at what his words actually conveyed (as opposed to the intent — and accepted premise — of the message).  [WARNING:  THERE IS SOME PROFANITY IN THE FOLLOWING CLIP]

Just to be make sure that the comedic license hasn’t gone too far, I uncovered an article in the New York Times from 1988 recounting this very gramatical mistep.  It states:

It’s worth recalling, again, President John F. Kennedy’s use of a German phrase while standing before the Berlin Wall. It would be great, his wordsmiths thought, for him to declare himself a symbolic citizen of Berlin. Hence, ”Ich bin ein Berliner.”

What they did not know, but could easily have found out, was that such citizens never refer to themselves as ”Berliners.” They reserve that term for a favorite confection often munched at breakfast. So, while they understood and appreciated the sentiments behind the President’s impassioned declaration, the residents tittered among themselves when he exclaimed, literally, ”I am a jelly-filled doughnut.” (NYT)

Indeed, I even found a picture of the the pastry itself.   so the question arises, why does such a funny statement have such great significance.

The answer, plain and simple, is that words are a limited form of communication.  To truly communicate with a person, you need to understand the entire message:  The context.  That context is from non-verbal signals as well as the societal and social context of the statement.

In mediation and negotiation, you will often flub on a statement.  What you cannot flub on is intention.  You must be completely present and in the moment and communicate the message with genuineness.  If you do so, then even if you make a verbal mistake, you can make sure that such verbal mistake does not become a communication mistake.

By Steven G. Mehta

Would you like to know of some magic words that will help people who hear your message to trust you?  Well if that is something that interests you, then you need to read further, because I will show you that there are certain words that can help people who receive your message to increase trust in the message. You can trust me to show you these words.

Researchers found that placing the following statement at the end of an ad for a auto service firm caused their trust scores to jump as much as 33%.

“You can trust us to do the job for you.”

It is interesting, this phrase does not promise anything special, except that the job will done.  Perhaps by not overpromising, the phrase engenders trust because it is sincere and achievable.  According to the research,  that phrase caused people to rate the firm in the ad higher in every category:

Fair Price – Up 7%
Caring – Up 11%
Fair Treatment – Up 20%
Quality – Up 30%
Competency – Up 33%

As is shown above, the highest increase was in belief of competency, simply by saying those ten magic words. This study is quite revealing and reminds me of the another study that asked to cut to the front of the line, and then changed the request by simply adding to the request that the person wanted to cut to the front of the line BECAUSE they needed to get done faster.  In that study, simply by using the term “because” the subjects were more willing to allow the experimenter to go to the front of the line.

This study shows that simple words have great power.  As a mediator or negotiator, you should choose those words carefully.  If you seek to endear trust, you might consider using phrases that show that you can be trusted such as “you can trust me to make sure that I will negotiate the best deal for you,” or “You can trust me to work to make the best possible deal.”  A negotiator might say to her opposing counsel, “you can trust me to present your best case to my client to see if we can come to a mutually amicable agreement.”

Nevertheless, when negotiating, consider the words that you use, because you never know they have more force and effect than you think.

Research Source:

Journal of Advertising,

By Steven G. Mehta

How people verbally fight and address conflict can have a direct consequence on their stress levels.  New research shows that the way you argue has a direct connection to the amount of stress you create from that argument.

A professor of biobehavioral health suggests the use of thoughtful words during relationship conflicts can mitigate health problems caused by stress. The latest research from Graham et al. (2009) shows that couples who are more considerate and rational during a fight release lower amounts of stress-related proteins. This suggests that rational communication between partners can ease the impact of marital conflict on the immune system.

Individuals in a stressful situation — as in a troubled relationship — typically have elevated levels of chemicals known as cytokines. These proteins are produced by cells in the immune system and help the body mount an immune response during infection. However, abnormally high levels of these proteins are linked to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.

When people used words in a conflict-resolution discussion that suggested a thoughtful discussion — words like think, because, reason, why — the researchers found lower amounts of cytokines, the stress-related proteins. The researchers suggest it is because these kinds of words suggest that people are either making sense of the conflict, or at least thinking about it in a deeper, more meaningful manner.

This is important for mediation and other areas of conflict resolution because it helps people from increasing or escalating the tension or stress levels in a dispute.  It is helpful as a mediator to try to invoke such words and rationalization so as to also limit the amount of stress hormones.  By doing so, the entire argument or conflict can move towards the path of de-escalation to ultimate resolution.

Research Source:

Graham, J.E., Glaser, R., Loving, T.J., Malarkey, W.B., Stowell, J.R., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K. (2009). Cognitive word use during marital conflict and increases in proinflammatory cytokines. Health Psychology, 28(5), 621-630.

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