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How to calm your brain in the middle of conflict

Conflict can make you stupid.

How so? In conflict with another person, most people lapse into their “caveman brain,” operating on urges, not reason, and rushing toward fight or flight. Our brains evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with saber-tooth tigers and other imminent dangers. The number one priority for the early human mind was to look out for anything that might harm you—and kill it or run from it in the opposite direction.

  • Your heart races.

  • Your blood pressure spikes.

  • Your pupils dilate.

  • Your blood rushes to your extremities to foster escape or battle.

Basically, all bodily systems are working to keep you alive in what you’ve perceived as a dangerous situation. Caveman brain.

Now, after 100,000 years of evolution, the modern mind is still on the lookout, assessing and judging everything we encounter. Safe or dangerous? Harmful or helpful? Friend or foe?

The problem is our brain doesn’t distinguish between saber-tooth tigers and surly coworkers. Someone slights you in a meeting, and you’re in Stone Age survival mode, utterly overreacting to the perceived “threat"!

Suddenly, you’re stupid.

Specifically, in this state, you’re under the influence of the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system directs the body's rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations. A flash flood of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles. The sympathetic nervous system is like the accelerator on your car, “revving” you up and getting you away from danger. Fight or flight.

This is known as “brain hijack,” and it’s a condition that fans the flames of conflict and makes collaboration virtually impossible.

Suddenly, you’re just trying not to get eaten alive.

When you’re in brain hijack, you’re not responding to the other person’s “threat.” You’re reacting—reflexively and self-centeredly, assuming you’re in the right and being misunderstood. The key is to take some time and to consider that it may be you who is misunderstanding the other person.

How do you do that?

Ways to calm your brain in conflict

You need to engage what’s known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the body's rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed, resting, or feeding. Where the sympathetic nervous system is your accelerator, the parasympathetic nervous system is like your brakes. It works to slow down the body’s response. Once the threat is over, cortisol levels decline and the parasympathetic nervous system slows the stress response by releasing hormones that relax the mind and body while inhibiting many of the high energy functions of the body.

There are things you can do in the moment, though, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and get you out of caveman brain.

First off, remove yourself from the conflict—even if only for a few moments. Maybe a walk outside. Can you do that in the middle of a meeting? Well, maybe not instantly, but, at least, at the next break get yourself from the stressful situation.

If it’s just you and one or two other people in the stressful situation, here are some things you can say to excuse yourself:

  • “I need to take a moment before I can respond.”

  • “I need to process this. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

  • “Can we reschedule for a little today?”

When you’re by yourself, perhaps on that walk around the block, here are some things you can do to get the blood back from your extremities and into your brain:

Deep breathing—When you take long, slow breathes (in through the nose and out through the mouth), it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Your heart rate begins to slow and your blood pressure drops.

Meditation—There are many apps that provide 5- to 10-minute guided meditations to reduce stress, such as Calm and Headspace. Also, search for “relaxation guided meditation” on YouTube.

Scientists have found mediation makes measurable changes to your brain, specifically, the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for decision making), the amygdala (which controls emotional response) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory and learning).

Call up the app, choose a specific mediation and let yourself unwind.

Repetitive prayer—Eyes closed, silently repeat a short prayer or phrase from a prayer while focusing on your breath. This method may be especially appealing if religion or spirituality is meaningful to you.

Progressive relaxation—You tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and you relax them as you breathe out. Work on the following muscle groups in the following ways:

  • Clench and unclench your hands.

  • Extend your forearms and bend your hands back at the wrist.

  • Flex your biceps and triceps.

  • Shrug your shoulders, raising them toward your ears.

  • Wrinkle your forehead into a deep frown.

  • Smile as widely as you can, stretching your cheeks and jaws.

  • Squint your eyes as tightly as you can.

  • To stretch your neck, touch your chin to your chest and then arch your head backward.

  • Take a slow, deep breath, expanding your chest.

  • Clench your thighs

  • Point your toes toward your face and then point them away from your face and downward at the same time.

Get back into the now—Tune into your senses. Stop and slowly notice two things that you see. Now, close your eyes and notice two things you can smell, hear, and, if possible, taste.

Gently touch your lips—Parasympathetic fibers run throughout your lips, so touching them activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Take one or two fingers and lightly run them over your lips.

Use visualization—Picture yourself in a peaceful place that you love. The ocean. A sunset. A sunset at the ocean. A vast forest. Use all your senses as you visualize the place in this imagery. Hear the sounds of the waves, feel the breeze on your face, and smell the scent of the pine needles.

Moving from reacting to responding to manage conflict

The point of all these activities is to move your from reacting impulsively to responding thoughtfully. I’m reminded of the words of Victor Frankl, who was speaking about the lessons he learned in a WW2 concentration camp: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedom—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

When we get out of our caveman brain, we can choose how to respond. We can operate on reason instead of urges.

When you’re reacting, you’re liable to make angry gestures or bark out things you’ll later regret. You’re more likely to demean others with what you say—or what you don’t say. You’re more likely to retaliate in an effort to win at all costs.

When your responding, you’re more likely to analyze the situation, weighing the pros and cons of different approaches. You’re more likely to delay your response until your blood pressure lowers. You’re more likely to empathize, seeing things from the other person’s perspective.

We have an interactive workshop that can help you manage conflict more productively During this online leadership development session, participants complete and receive a personalized report of their Conflict Dynamics Profile that measures Hot Buttons, Destructive and Constructive Behaviors. This live-facilitated workshop gives you the opportunity to practice the specific behaviors that not only help you get calm in a conflict,

So next time you’re in the middle of a heated conflict, take a time out. Use one or more of the calming techniques highlighted above. Instead of reacting like a caveman, respond to the other party in the conflict. Engage in positive conflict behaviors. Suddenly, conflict turns into collaboration and you come up with a solution that everyone can get behind.

Want more strategies for managing conflict? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.

Did you like this post? Try The Power of "Going First" in Conflict


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