Friday, April 15, 2011

Dealing with Conflict

April 2011

Why does conflict happen? There are many reasons, but I want to point out the neurological reason. In the past, you've heard me talk about the amygdala. It is the part of the brain that is wired to instantaneously recognize errors and threats. So, when conversations turn from the expected to the unexpected, our biological response is one of flying fists or fleet feet when what is really needed is gentle attentiveness and intelligent persuasion.

When the amygdala is hijacked by an apparent threat, adrenaline is pumped into your blood stream. Your brain diverts blood from activities that are deemed non-essential to the high-priority task of protecting yourself (like hitting or running). The large muscles in your arms, back and legs get more blood and your brain gets less!! As a result, you are facing your conflict with the same cognitive resources as a prehistoric primate. Is it any wonder that we struggle in this area?

What can you do when this happens?  One thing you can do is recognize that the apparent threat isn't an imminent danger to your physical well-being. It's just a SPAN (something perceived as negative.)

Many people waste a lot of time and energy trying to change and control everything around them. Our society's abundance of technology and wealth creates the illusion that we can control just about everything. Many discover that this control is an illusion and become overwhelmed by the unpredictability of events. This is seen as a SPAN and a threat. Some falsely assume that because they can't control the world around them that they can't control their own lives. They get the "whatever" attitude. Others fight on and on trying to grab the illusion of control. In any case, the amygdala will recognize this as a threat.

Try to remember that you are in control of your responses. Sure, you might not be able to control your physiological reactions, but you can recognize them as just a biological reaction to an illusion. It's simply a SPAN, a gap. It's a gap between your expectation and reality. It can be a SPAN between your perception and someone else's perception. In any case, it's not really a threat! Your brain has mis-perceived the situation.  (Note: If you are feeling threatened during a conflict, there is probably at least one other person feeling threatened as well: the person on the other side of the SPAN.)

So, what can you do about it? How can you deal with this conflict?
  1. Realize that if your amygdala is hijacked, someone else's may also be hijacked. Give them the benefit of the doubt! They are NOT your enemy. They, in fact, are another infinitely valuable human being just like you.
  2. Ask, don't assume! What you think you understand about what someone says, how someone looks at you, what someone means by what they do, etc., may often not reflect reality at all, and more often than not lead you down a path that contains more mistrust and relationship-destroying behaviors.