ONE Thing That Will Help You Deal With Conflict Better
There are so many benefits to facing conflict. It’s one of the best ways to solve problems, dispel tension, and find creative solutions. So why do we react so negatively when faced with conflict and what can we do about it?
In addition to the fact that we’re pretty much socialized to avoid direct conflict at a young age, we have real, physiological responses to conflict that cause us to think or react on a much less evolved level than we’re actually capable of. The body is responding to a perceived attack or threat before the mind has a chance to think about it rationally.
What’s actually going on in our bodies when we’re faced with conflict? Why do most of us tend to dislike and avoid conflict so much, even when we know it’s better to deal with it directly?
Let’s start by understanding what’s happening in our bodies and brains during conflict.
The Amygdala Hijack.
The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a primary role in decision making, memory processing, and emotional responses – including fear, anxiety, and aggression.
Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack” in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.
An amygdala hijack happens when you have an emotional response to some kind of stimulus (in this case, a conflict at work or in your personal life) that is overwhelming, immediate, and likely out of proportion to the event that stimulated the emotional response in the first place.
The amygdala is like the brain’s smoke detector. As soon as a perceived attack happens – BEEP BEEP BEEP – it tells you to get out now or fight the fire full force.
During a perceived attack (the key word here being perceived - but we’ll get to that a bit later), our brains begin releasing a large amount of adrenaline and cortisol into our systems, causing real, physical effects on our bodies.
Everyone experiences amygdala hijacking in their own ways, but many people describe the following as common:
Shallow, fast breathing
Sort of sounds like panic, right? Well, it sort of is.
Why Does Amygdala Hijacking Happen?
Conflict does not look the same as it did centuries ago. The way we work and live has changed, which means how we experience conflict has changed, too.
Now, we might experience conflict as a passive-aggressive email or someone talking over us in a meeting. Quite different, we can assume, from a Paleolithic-era conflict that might end in the death of an individual or entire community.
But our brains haven’t quite caught up to our modern circumstances, and we still react to conflict as if a saber tooth tiger were staring us down. (Ok: maybe Alex in accounting shows their frustration if your expense report isn’t turned in on time, but let’s be real - they’re not going to maul you over it. Right, Alex? ...Alex?)
Seriously though, when your amygdala is hijacked, it’s trying to tell you that you need to make an immediate, split-second decision that will keep you safe, and it gives you very little time to think.
You have 3 choices: Fight, Flight, or Freeze
The amygdala hijack used to be a mechanism that helped keep us safe from physical threats. Now, more often than not, it gets in our way and causes us to engage in conflict in unhealthy, unproductive ways.
Your amygdala is specifically telling the rest of you to NOT relax.
Our instinct is to find safety immediately and indiscriminately, triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response. You’ve likely heard this phrase before, but let’s review:
The “fight” response used to mean wielding your weapon and fighting to the death - to protect yourself, your community, your land or food. Now, it means bearing down and insisting that you’re right and they’re wrong, no matter how many minutes of the meeting the disagreement takes up.
The “flight” response used to look like running back to your cave or climbing a tree to get out of reach of danger. Now, it looks like calling in sick for a week in hopes that the conflict will magically disappear by the time you come back. (Has that ever truly worked, for anyone?)
The “freeze” response used to look like physically freezing so that you didn't draw attention to yourself. Now, it means delaying fight or flight - either consciously or subconsciously - to prepare for your next move. Freezing is not a bad thing, so long as it doesn’t turn into avoiding.
Ok, so now you know what the amygdala hijack is and how it affects you during conflict…but how do you un-hijack yourself when that physiological response is so overwhelming and seemingly uncontrollable in the moment?
I’m not going to lie to you – it’s going to take time and practice, but there are some incredibly helpful techniques you can employ to improve your conflict response, and I’m going to share the most helpful one with you right now, along with 3 steps you can use to start using it today.
Step 1: Make Mindfulness a Priority
I know, I know, you can’t get away from people telling you to start a mindfulness practice these days. But it’s for a good reason! Mindfulness is an incredible tool for dealing with emotionally charged situations like conflict - at home or in your personal life.
Practicing mindfulness helps you observe rather than react, and it can help override the amygdala hijack by harnessing the power of awareness.
Step 2: Make ‘Progress over Perfection’ Your Mindfulness Mantra
The most important thing to remember about mindfulness is that it really just means awareness. With that in mind:
Start a meditation practice. Sit in silence and recite your new mindfulness mantra for a few minutes a day; walk and observe nature without distraction; or use dance, running or yoga as a movement-based mindfulness practice. Your goal early on is to figure out what type of mindfulness-based practice resonates most with you.
Train yourself to notice sights, sounds, and smells around you. This is a simple way to become more aware of your surroundings and to ground you in the present moment.
Always Be Breathing. Sure, you are already always breathing, but there’s a difference between involuntary breathing and breathing with the intention to raise your awareness. To practice the latter, breathe deeply from your abdomen and count your inhales and exhales. Make your exhales longer than your inhales, and slowly increase the length of each with each breath. The breath is an incredible tool that you have at your disposal - always - to help you combat feelings of anxiety, panic, pressure, or anger. So, use it.
Step 3: Use Mindfulness to De-escalate Conflict
Mindfulness will help you become more aware of what’s going on in your own mind and body during a conflict. You’ll be more readily able to say to yourself, “My breath feels really shallow, and my hands just started shaking. I feel pretty fired up right now; like I might say something I could regret later…Pretty sure my amygdala is actively being hijacked.”
You’ll still have those emotional and physiological responses, but the goal is to mitigate the effects of those responses, especially in tense situations.
You might be able to engage a more rational thought process about your feelings and emotions in that moment: that you’re feeling angry, ashamed, or scared, and you can give a voice to those feelings. (There is no benefit to denying our feelings. They will still be present and powerful if you try to ignore them – maybe even more so.)
Mindfulness can also help you empathize with the other person during a conflict. You can more readily recognize that they might be having the same physiological response as you are, and you can use that empathy to suggest a time-out or that you revisit the conversation after you’ve both calmed down.
Being able to understand why people may be reacting strongly to what you thought was a small conflict can help you come to a conflict resolution with empathy and openness.
Dealing with and managing conflict in healthy ways comes in many different forms, but it’s always best to start with what you can control, which is your own responses and reactions. Mindfulness is a great way to start doing exactly that.
Recognize what you’re experiencing, remove yourself from the emotionally hijacked state, revisit the situation with a more impartial lens, and (hopefully) resolve the conflict.