Many people (couples, friends, colleagues, and even bosses and employees at work) argue in ways that result in deeper emotional wounds and damage to their relationships. This is why “conflict” has gotten such a bad rap. But conflict does not have to be destructive, and eliminating it from our social relationships might not even be desirable. Sometimes, conflict can lead to seeing old problems in new ways. It can break us free of the places we were stuck. It can show us alternate ways of solving problems. This is why most psychologists working with organizations have moved away from talking about conflict resolution to talking about conflict management.
…So, it is best to learn how to manage it and make a potentially negative situation productive.
Think about the last time you got into an argument that quickly escalated to raised voices, exchanged accusations, and hurled insults. Typically, these kinds of escalations happen when someone says something that our emotional system registers as an attack. The strong negative emotions we experience then hijack our thought processes and impel us to launch a defensive counter attack. Now, whether the initiator of this interaction was consciously attacking us or not, they are likely to register our counterattack in the same way. And then we have a rapid, angry escalation, where the goal quickly becomes to come out on top. This sequence often unfolds regardless of what the initial issue was.
So, what happened here?
Sometimes it’s best to look at patterns in the simplest way; and this usually entails understanding the brain and how it registers threats and processes information. A part of the brain called the amygdala is responsible for detecting threats in the environment and deciding whether the threats are real or not. If it determines that the threat is real, it will trigger a rapid adrenaline release to prepare you to fight or run away. I call this, “taking an emotional hit.” The hit doesn’t feel good. You might feel instantly flushed in the face, experience a knot in your solar plexus, and pressure in the top of your chest. You will feel an immediate need to eliminate the threat. Counterattacking with a nasty comeback, pointing out that the other person does things even worse, or even calling them names might seem like a good idea. That’s because these negative behaviors are attempts at emotion regulation. In other words, if we eliminate the threat, or at least lessen it, that horrible feeling will diminish or go away. This all seems simple enough… and it might work; except that the other person is doing the same thing and quickly launches yet another assault.
This entire destructive sequence can be eliminated if we simply…
Learn to Take the Hit!
What would happen if, when our amygdala registered the threat and triggered an adrenaline release…when we felt the blow of those horrible emotions… we just stood there and absorbed the blow?
If we took a moment to breathe and collect our thoughts we could actually make this situation productive. Consider it an act of bravery. It doesn’t take bravery to run away from the argument and it doesn’t take bravery to lash out and counterattack. So, learn to fight with honor and be a social warrior. Another way to look at taking the hit is to think about:
Counting coup was a practice of the Plains Indians. During their many tribal wars, it was often a sign of extreme courage and honor if, instead of killing their enemy, they could get close enough to strike a blow and leave their enemy stunned, yet alive. Of course, if someone is counting coup, another person must also be taking the blow. Some reports even describe warriors tying themselves to stakes to prevent themselves from running in the face of an enemy attack. They would stand and face the attack and not run away. They were willing to take the blow, which often had the effect of preventing further escalations of conflict.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to stand there and take the emotional hit. That is, don’t fight back, and take the blow. You can simply register the experience. Now this may seem counter intuitive, but taking this stance is not a failure to stand up for yourself. On the contrary, it can allow you to maintain your balance and keep your personal power in relation to the other person.
The next time someone lashes out at you in a way that leaves you feeling wounded, take a second to breathe, register the hit you just took, collect your thoughts and calmly say something like, “Ouch. That really hurt me.” And don’t say anything else. Just let there be a moment of silence and let the emotional wave subside. At that point, you can walk away or you can restart the discourse in a more honest and productive way.
I realize that our society has taught most of us to be indirect communicators and people are not accustomed to talking to each other in this way. But, in the situation I described above, our retort would not be a counterattack. It would simply be a statement of truth acknowledging that the blow landed and that we felt it. This reflects back to the other person the impact they are having on us and can allow us to start talking honestly about the real issue at hand instead of the small details, petty insults, and recollections of hurt that usually keep us stuck in conflict.