A Coaching Power Tool Created by Joanne Lee
(Health and Leadership Coach, AUSTRALIA)
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. Viktor Frankl
Conflict occurs when two or more people see their needs, ideas or values as competing or incompatible. It can cause a variety of strong, and often negative emotions – such as abusive arguments, anger, distrust, disappointment, frustration, confusion, worry, or fear. Conflict is an inevitable part of life. It happens to us all. As individuals with different needs, values, ideas, views, tastes and personalities, sooner or later we’re bound to clash. It’s not the presence of conflict that is the problem; it is how we deal with it which determines whether it is problematic or not (Table 1). In fact, conflict can be a catalyst for real and lasting change: it has often helped people to make better decisions because it helps them to identify situations that no longer serve them. Thus, conflict can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive depending on how we handle it.
Table 1: What happens when conflict is handled constructively versus destructively.
Vitality Tiredness and ill health Typically, conflict occurs in escalating levels of seriousness. Five progressive stages are observed; these are: discomfort, incident, misunderstanding, tension and crisis (Figure 1). Many destructive behaviours (as a result of unresolved conflict) can be prevented by early attention to conflict clues. Discomfort – slightly negative emotions – alert us to the reality that a situation of conflict is occurring. It is easier to deal with the issues at this stage because people tend to look for objective solutions in a cooperative manner. At the other end of the spectrum – crisis – emotions are at boiling point. Heated or abusive arguments are a sure sign of crisis. During this stage, objectivity goes out the window so people are unable to see things clearly. Mediation is often necessary to address issues.
One may ask ‘why can’t we see the woods for the trees’ when we are furious? As conflict escalates through various stages, people’s behaviours gradually regress from mature to an immature level of emotional development. When our emotional involvement is low (e.g., calm), our rational perspective is high because it is easier to engage our rational brain (prefrontal cortex). But, when the emotional involvement is high (e.g., anger), our rational perspective is low because it is harder to engage the rational brain. In fact, when we perceive threat (psychological or physical), our primitive brain (amygdala) assumes control and kicks off a ‘fight or flight’ response. The amygdala is our survival watchdog and decides if we should get angry or fearful, and the prefrontal cortex is the part that makes you stop, think and find solutions. So, the key here is learning to engage our rational brain in the moment of conflict so the amygdala doesn’t get overstimulated or assume control.
Each of us view the world through our own perception of reality – through our own lens. This is based on our learned/taught standards and values, personal experience, and the meaning (views and beliefs) we give events as a result of these. Once we own our own experience of reality, we realise that we have a choice in any given situation. We choose either to be constructive or not, in our approach. If we react to others defensively by attacking or withdrawing, conflict can rapidly escalate from one of discomfort to crisis e.g., angry outburst, heated arguments or violence. If, instead, we respond appropriately, we can help to bring the emotions to a level at which the issue can be dealt with more constructively.
How might you go about owning your experiences and perceptions?
- By acknowledging your thoughts, feelings and actions triggered by another person or event. But recognise that these are based on the meanings you attach to the event.
- By not allowing someone else’s actions or behaviour dictate how you behave - you do have a choice. A brilliant formula is: E + R = O. It’s not the Event but also how you Respond that influences the Outcome (Paul McGee).
- By becoming more aware of why you respond to events the way you do, you can, over time, work on making responses that are more constructive.
- By knowing what is, and is not within your power. You can attempt to address only those things over which you have power. For example, I do have power to make choices about how I will respond to my feelings of anger. I have the power to behave in a calm and respectful way. I don't have power to force someone to agree with me. Therefore, I need to focus on what I can do and not put energy into things I cannot control.
- What else can you think of?
Take some time out to consider a conflict situation you recently faced.
- How did the situation affect you personally?
- What was the outcome of the situation?
- On a scale of 1-10 (1=low and 10 = high) how emotionally involved were you?
- Using the same scale, where would you rate your rational perspective of the situation?
- How would someone who was less emotionally involved have seen the situation?
- How would responding differently have affected the outcome and consequences?
- Think of three other responses you could have made in that situation?
- What are your reflections on doing this exercise?
Moving out of Reaction Constructively:
Techniques such as centering, visualisation exercises, mindfulness, meditation, reflection and reframing perspectives appear to calm our inner tensions associated with conflict threats and provide us with a way to regain emotional balance. These techniques focus on activating or strengthening the prefrontal cortex which in turn counteracts our ‘fight or flight’ response by toning down the amygdala. Put simply, it slows or shuts down unnecessary instincts and emotions, while activating rational thinking.
Retrain your Brain
- Take a slow, deep breath and attention to the centre of your body i.e., a little below your navel, and exhale slowly. Build 15-second practice sessions into simple, everyday situations e.g., as you walk your dog, sit in the car at red lights, or walk into a meeting. Practise it enough it becomes second nature and when difficult situations arise you will be able to turn to it almost immediately.
- Meditation is intended to train attention for the sake of providing insight and clarity. Find a form of meditation that makes you feel more centered in a way that stays with you throughout the day.
- Practicing mindfulness deliberately trains your brain to maintain focus all the time.
Know your Triggers and Early Conflict Clues You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening, or the thoughts, feelings and physical responses that comes with it. So managing your emotions and remaining calm under stress requires awareness.
1. Learn your “conflict triggers” What situations push your buttons? What situations make you prone to losing your temper? When and where does it happen?
- Is it when someone takes ‘your’ parking spot just when you are ready to park?
- Is it when someone cuts you off in traffic?
- Is it when you are running late to a meeting and your co-worker keeps interrupting you?
- Is it when your teenager rolls her eyes and slams the door in your face, or says, “Whatever?”
2. Identify your “early warning signals” You can spot warning signs in your body, emotions and thoughts. Examples are below.
- Do you tense up, raise and broaden your shoulders or tighten your jaw?
- Do you startle, stop breathing or don’t move at all?
- Do you feel angry, irritated or annoyed?
- Do you feel hurt, upset or anxious?
- Do you feel overwhelmed?
- “How dare they! I’ll set them straight!”
- “That jerk! Who does he think he is!”
- “How dare she disrespects me!”
Reflect and Reframe your Perspective
- What might be the cause of my discomfort, irritation, anxiety?
- What are the facts of the situation?
- What is there about the situation that feels unjust or unacceptable?
- What trigger thoughts am I having?
- What do I believe about me, the other person or the situation?
- If I were to take responsibility for the meaning I gave the event how would I feel?
- What experiences am I creating for myself and my life?
- What meanings could I choose to give to these events instead?
- How can I frame these issues in a healthier and more accurate way?
- What if I could choose not to feel offended/angry/anxious? What could I choose to feel instead?
McGee, Paul. S.U.M.O (Shut Up, Move On): The Straight-Talking Guide to Succeeding in Life.
Helena Cornelius and Shoshana Faire. Everyone Can Win: Responding to Conflict Constructively.