Using neuroscience to resolve conflicts (Part 1)

By: Ariana Friedlander Friday March 1, 2019 0 comments Tags: Ariana Friedlander

By Ariana Friedlander

Rosabella Consulting

As I sit down to write this article I feel the tension of conflict in my tightening gut and clenching jaw. It is not a comfortable feeling. In fact, it is unsettling, distracting and frustrating. It's no wonder that we have been trained in our society to equate conflict as a bad thing, something to avoid at all costs, a sign of something very negative.friedlander-mugfixed

But the reality of conflict is much more expansive than my literal gut reaction. There's immense beauty and possibility that comes from leaning-in to these uncomfortable moments. Getting there requires us to shift our approach to conflict in the first place.

Conflict happens. Disagreements are a part of life. Differing view points are an inherent symptom of our shared human experience. And so, first and foremost, accepting conflict is the first step in making a healthy shift. 

Not only does conflict happen, I will go as far as to suggest it's actually a good thing. I saw John Garvey speak at Fort Collins Startup Week and he shared this simple yet profound quote, “conflict changes life.” 

What if we reframed conflict from being a problem to avoid to being an opportunity for growth and improvement? What if we chose to look at conflict as a chance to become a better version of ourselves, better teams, and better communities? 

Part of reframing conflict as an opportunity requires a change in how we approach our feelings. The feelings conflict spurred within me at the beginning of this article included anger, disappointment and frustration. These are strong feelings and I would argue that conflict only arises when the parties involved share similarly (and competing) strong feelings. 

Researcher Karla McLaren describes feelings as neurological triggers which require an action. Her point being that feelings aren't inherently good or bad, they are indicators. Much like the ways our belly's signify to our brains we are hungry. Our feelings are indicating that something important has happened. Like them or not, feelings are worth paying attention to.

In her book, “The Art of Empathy” McLaren explains that anger, in particular, signifies that a boundary has been crossed. So we become angry when someone does something to us that we view as wrong. Anger begs one to take action to right that wrong.

At the heart of any conflict is a trigger, it could be a word, a situation, a behavior, a stern tone. The trigger is what causes the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. And the neurochemical reaction is what causes the feeling. 

When most people experience a trigger, they have a patterned reaction where the primitive brain begins navigating a threat response. This is great in truly black and white situations such as, there's a saber tooth tiger growling at you (or in more modern times and recently near Fort Collins, a mountain lion is attacking you while trail running).

But in most situations, our lives are not in imminent danger. Therefore, we are reacting to conflict in counter productive ways because our primitive brain is not good at navigating complex, inter-personal situations. 

When the primitive brain is in a threat response that causes our thinking to shift to a very myopic view of the world. We see things as black or white. We are unable to take other people's perspectives into consideration let alone empathize. In short, when the primitive brain is running the show we are operating out of fear instead of openness.

Luckily, we need not be victim to such patterned threat responses to conflict. Indeed, one of the most groundbreaking discoveries of the 20th century was neuroplasticity, proving that our brains can change and be rewired throughout life. 

So the next time you experience the feelings that conflict arises within you, it's important to hit pause. As you pause you want to recognize how you're feeling, and investigate the source of your feelings before you react. This will enable you to handle conflict constructively. Depending on the situation it might be helpful to literally and physically get space before engaging with the other person.

The best way to recognize your feeling is by naming it. Is it anger, frustration, disappointment, confusion, fear? As you name it, notice how you experience that feeling in your body. Do you feel tension in your gut, heat rising, a racing heart, a feeling of dread, distracted by a racing mind? These are all physiological responses to the release of stress hormones.

To investigate you may ask yourself simple yet open ended. What's happening here? What's making me feel this way? What's really important to me here? What if my assumptions about this situation are wrong?

The act of bringing awareness to your feelings in the moment, then reflecting on such questions enables you to re-engage your pre-frontal cortex. The simple practice of stepping back, recognizing your feelings and then investigating them will help you to interrupt and redirect a patterned threat response.

As you redirect from a threat response to your executive brain it is important to separate fact from fiction. We are story making machines, our brains are constantly finding and ascribing meaning to the events in our lives. Tensions worsen in conflict when people confuse the meaning they ascribe as fact. That is why it is important to distinguish between what really happened (the facts) and what you're telling yourself about the situation (the fiction).

The steps I shared here will help you apply neuroscience to prepare to navigate conflict more productively. Next month I'll share tips on how to use neuroscience to effectively engage with the persons involved in the conflict.

Ariana Friedlander

About the Author: Ariana Friedlander

Ariana Friedlander is the founder and principal of Rosabella Consulting, LLC, and has more than nine years of experience working with small businesses, nonprofits and government agencies to create strategies for successful organizational growth.