Conflict situations are inevitable, especially in a densely populated urban centre like Singapore. Lau Li-Choo explains how we can better manage ourselves in a conflict.
Conflict is something everyone experiences from time to time as we engage with other people. Living as we do in a densely populated city with the additional stressors of COVID-19, dengue, inflation and economic uncertainty in the world, we can expect conflicts to increase.
Many of us would have heard of the “fight or flight response” or the acute stress response. While we do not live in the jungle and need not worry about having to fight to survive, we all know what it feels like to want to fight or flee from an argument, to come out the winner. Understanding this basic human survival instinct provides insights that can help us to better manage ourselves and the conflicts we face.
What happens to the brain and body during a conflict?
Think back to the most recent time when you were in an argument or when you were upset at someone. Did you experience your body trembling? Your heart beating faster? Perhaps your fists were clenched or your voice was raised?
These physical signs are triggered by our amygdala, which is a small walnut-sized part of the brain just above the brain stem that is chiefly known for scanning our environment for threats or dangers. The amygdala alerts us when there is a threat that requires us to act.
For example, if a ball were to come flying through a window we are seated beside, we instinctively put up our hands and crouch down to avoid the shards of breaking glass. Or if you were out walking and a snake suddenly slithers onto the path in front of you, you might instinctively throw something at the snake, or you might freeze or jump away.
Our hearts beat faster during this time because adrenaline is released in our body as it gets ready within seconds to protect ourselves.
These instinctual responses triggered by the amygdala arise whether the threats are physical or emotional, as we instinctively want to protect ourselves in all circumstances.
In a conflict where we feel unheard or the other party doesn’t agree with us, we feel similarly threatened as by the appearance of a snake.
Why do some people lose control of themselves during a conflict?
While the amygdala controls the fight or flight response, another part of the brain, the neocortex, controls the rational or more thinking response.
After the initial amygdala response, we would usually be able to reset mentally and the rational neocortex will resume the regulation of our responses after we perceive the threat is no longer so imminent.
However, sometimes we can become so focused on the threat that the amygdala takes over completely, shutting down the rational part of the brain so it can’t operate. This has been termed the “amygdala hijack” and it causes “flooding”.
During a conflict, being “flooded” commonly translates into wanting to have our way and to defend our rights.
In a “flooded” state, our ability to listen well to others diminishes. We lose our ability to think rationally. Instead of listening, we start to talk over the other person, and eventually shout at the person, as we feel unheard. Our anger spirals upward and out of control.
At the other end of the spectrum, some may shut down and walk out, refusing to engage with the other party. This is commonly known as “stonewalling”.
Often, “flooding” leads us to behave in ways we regret.
What should I do when I know I am “flooded” during a conflict?
Many of us know that such responses are not the best way to deal with a conflict and are likely to cause our relationships to falter or worse, break down altogether.
Therefore, when we are trying to discuss different points of view with another human being, these defensive instincts need to be tempered.
When we recognise that we are in a “flooded” state, we need to take a break and call a time-out for ourselves.
Tell the other party that the discussion is important to you, that you value the other party, and you do want to continue having a discussion to work out the conflict, but that you need a break.
Where possible, at least a 20-minute break is recommended – at worst, a toilet break of 5 minutes is better than none. And then set the time (and date if necessary) for the resumption of the discussion.
During the break, use coping strategies such as deep breathing exercises or muscle relaxation to come out of the flooded state. If there is a longer break, you could take a walk, listen to music, have a warm bath or a cold shower. Do whatever it takes for you to calm down.
This is why William Ury, international mediator and co-founder of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University, recommends ‘going to the balcony’ – a space from which one can gain perspective about the conflict. By taking a break, you are helping to free yourself from the shackles of the amygdala allowing the other parts of the brain to regain function.
This will allow you to think more rationally (and very often, more creatively) about the conflict and come up with possible solutions to meet the different needs of the parties.
Free online talk
To learn more about how to handle your emotions during a conflict, do attend our upcoming talk on EMuniCCate, a proprietary training course by EMCC on emotionally-aware communications:
Title: EMuniCCate – Emotions
Date: Wednesday, 24 August 2022
Time: 12 noon – 1 pm
Email us at email@example.com to receive the details for this Zoom talk.