By Danya Rumore
If you’ve been reading our recent EDR Blogs, you know that I believe conflict is a normal, healthy, unavoidable part of life. I also believe that if skillfully dealt with, conflict can be quite productive and generative. Unfortunately, our tendency to see conflict as a problem often sets off a vicious cycle that ultimately leads to conflict resulting in negative instead of positive outcomes. As I’ve explained in prior blogs, one key reason we see conflict as a problem is because we tend to see the world and conflict through a win-lose, scarcity mindset. To make conflict productive and to avoid it becoming destructive, we have to get out of this win-lose mindset and instead focus on what really matters, and one key way to do this is to ask ourselves and others “what would be a productive outcome in this situation?”
Simple, right? Then why is it so hard?
Interestingly, I think the answer to that question–and the answer to what we do about it–lies in our bodies, particularly our neurological systems.
As I’ve discussed in prior blogs, when we perceive a threat, our bodies do a miraculous, albeit sometimes inconvenient, thing: our neurological system goes into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode in an effort to protect us from harm. When this happens, we effectively are unable to think calmly, rationally, and creatively for a period of time, and we instinctively default to protective behaviors. This is what is called neurological dysregulation.
This instinct serves us well if we encounter a bear in the woods or another physical threat. However, it can get us into trouble when dealing with conflict, since it tends to lead us to attack the other person or accommodate or avoid in an effort to make the conflict go away, and as many of us know all too well from experience, such behaviors typically lead to hard feelings, damaged relationships, and other poor outcomes.
When we are calm and present, we can openly ask ourselves and others what really is at stake in this situation, what would be a good outcome, and what really matters to each of us. We can listen to ourselves and others with curiosity, communicate clearly and honestly, and really seek to understand each others’ concerns and needs. We can also get creative in exploring possible solutions that work well for all parties, and we can be ready to exercise our “walk away option” if need be. In other words, we can respond skillfully to the conflict.
However, when our neurological system is not calm, these ways of operating are totally out of reach for us. Instead, whether obviously or subtly and whether consciously or unconsciously, we act like cornered cats and we deal with conflict unskillfully. The same is true for other people. And our unskillful treatment of conflict typically leads to poor outcomes for everyone involved.
So what do we do?
To help prevent our neurological system from going into overdrive when we encounter conflict situations, the first and most important thing we need to do is to shift from seeing conflict as a problem to instead recognizing it as a normal, healthy, unavoidable part of life that, if dealt with skillfully, can be an opportunity for positive change. Only when we stop perceiving conflict as a threat will we be able to stay calm and present and respond skillfully to the situation in front of us.
That said, even if we are rationally convinced that conflict is a normal, healthy part of life and that it can be productive if dealt with skillfully, we need to be mindful of the fact that our biophysical instincts are a few steps ahead of our rational thinking. This means that if we are accustomed to perceiving and treating conflict as a threat, our bodies are going to react protectively when we are presented with conflict and we are probably going to default to the same ways of reacting, especially if the stakes are high. And the same is true for the other people in your life. Eventually, we can rewire this instinct so we don’t react defensively or aggressively when we simply don’t see eye to eye with someone (although we should still try to protect ourselves if at risk of physical harm). However, this takes time and practice.
It is also important to keep in mind that our neurological state affects others around us and vice versa. If I get dysregulated, other people are more likely to become dysregulated themselves, even if they manifest it in different ways than I do–for example, I might be exhibiting anger and they might shut down. Along similar lines, if I keep my calm and stay present, that will help others maintain or return to a calm state. That means that how different people react to conflict is going to have implications for other involved parties. It also means that, when dealing with conflict and in general, we influence others’ states in either negative or positive ways, and with that comes a certain responsibility.
All to say that operating from a state of calm is key to setting ourselves up for success in productively working through conflict and getting to a better place.
Here are a few practices I recommend for maintaining or regaining your calm when dealing with conflict:
- First, pause. As soon as you notice you and/or others seem to be getting dysregulated (e.g., people are getting worked up, disengaging, trying to appease others, etc.), find a way to take a pause to let everyone’s neurological systems calm down. Research suggests that for most of us, it takes a few minutes for our systems to calm down once we become dysregulated. Some ways you can create space include: asking for a few minutes to collect your thoughts; suggesting you take a pause in the conversation and come back in a few minutes, hours, or days once people have had a chance to really think about what is important to them; encouraging everyone to take a short walk to think about how to move forward; or even just saying you need to take a bathroom break.
- Breathe slowly–and focus on your breathing. However you make space, use that time to breathe mindfully. Research shows that slow, deep, mindful breathing powerfully calms our neurological systems. Focusing on our breath can also help clear our minds, which is important for helping our neurological systems settle down.
- When you are calm and present, remind yourself that conflict just is and the goal is to work through it productively. When you are calm and present (and only when you are truly calm and present), take a moment and remind yourself that conflict just is, it is not in and of itself a threat, and that the goal is to work through it productively. It may be helpful to ask yourself “what am I afraid of here?” I find that question reminds me that the conflict itself isn’t a threat, but that there are things that are important to me that I want to make sure get addressed, which leads into my next suggestion:
- Clarify what really matters to you and what would be a good outcome in this situation. With a calm mind, you can ask yourself what really matters to you in this situation and what would be a good outcome. In doing this, I encourage you to use the approaches I shared in my prior blogs on “Want to make conflict productive? Focus on what really matters” and “How to focus on what really matters in conflict.”
- Lead by example. You can have a powerful effect on the state of others and the overall conversation by being calm and present, creating space when needed so that people can regain their calm, and focusing the conversation on what really matters and getting to a good outcome. You can’t change others, but you can lead through example, and that is an enormously powerful thing to do.
Here are a few things I encourage you NOT to do:
- Don’t tell people to “calm down.” If people are clearly getting worked up (whether that manifests as attacking, accommodating, or avoiding behavior), it doesn’t help to tell them they need to calm down; this feels like a personal attack and, as a result, often has the opposite effect. Instead, speak from your own experience and needs by saying something such as “I think I need a moment to process that. Can we take a few minutes to sit with that before continuing this conversation?” or “I feel like I’m getting a little frustrated and that is making it hard for me to be an effective listener. I could use a minute or two to just breathe and recenter myself.”
- Don’t try to think your way into a calm neurological system. More thinking only keeps our neurological system in a state of hyperdrive. Neurological dysregulation is an embodied reaction and the response needs to be embodied as well; we can calm our minds by calming our bodies.
- Don’t get frustrated with yourself if you lose your cool. That is only going to add to your dysregulation. As soon as you recognize you’re not calm and present, accept that it is a very normal thing, be compassionate with yourself, and practice pausing and breathing (or whatever approach you develop to bring yourself back to calm).
In upcoming blogs, we’ll explore more skills for how to make conflict productive. However, our ability to put those skills into practice entirely depends on our ability to maintain or return to a calm neurological state. So, for now, I encourage you to tune into what is going on with your neurological system and body when you encounter conflict, to practice keeping or returning to calm, to figure out what techniques work for you–and to have fun with it!
Danya Rumore, Ph.D., is the Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a Research Professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a Clinical Associate Professor in the City and Metropolitan Planning Department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the Founder and a Co-Director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.
About the EDR Blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program, the EDR Blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional Blog posts at edrblog.org