Saturday, June 7, 2008

Handling Emotions During Conflict Resolution

This is part of the content of a talk I gave at the North Texas Conflict Resolution Conference today:

The Brain Science of War and Peace (conference theme)

During any conflict, both parties (as well as the mediator or conflict resolver, in many cases) will experience a perceived threat to their boundaries, in the form of a possible physical, financial, or personal loss. For example, the party or parties may believe that their livelihood, home, reputation, role as father or mother, affiliation with family members, church, social clubs, or even their workplace may be jeopardized. The belief that one is in jeopardy will trigger a limbic response -- what we know as the "flight or fight" mechanism.

At that point in time, an older, more primitive part of the brain is in control (the limbic region). A flood of chemicals is discharged along a portion of the brain and body called the "HPA Axis", and results in sensations of shaky voice, tremulous limbs, butterflies in the stomach, racing pulse, and sweating skin. In addition, the pupils dilate, we become attuned to visual stimuli, and our hunger and sex drives are reduced. These are all adaptive responses to fight or flee from peril.

This response happens without awareness and without cognitive or directed control. It happens "without thinking." Indeed, the regret that often takes place after we have cooled from "the heat of the moment", often leads us to buy-in to the popular notion that we can make much more rational and effective decisions, if only we could find a way to suppress or control this limbic response.

Not true. Modern neuroscience supports the idea that humans actually make the best decisions when we are operating from a combination of both the reasoning and rational decision-making in the frontal cortex, as well as the emotion in the amygdala and other limbic brain structures. We need both. So, the question becomes: how can we put that awful irrational, running-like-a-crazy-person-from-the-saber-toothed-tiger energy to work for us, rather than either being ruled by it, or being forced to inhibit it?

Here is what I teach:

Acknowledge it -- take note of the behaviors and overall situational cues. "You seem agitated". "I'm really wound up right now". "I can see that you are fidgety". "I can feel my heart pounding". These are all neutral statements that we can make that can lead us to a better awareness of our own state, as well as allowing others to become aware of theirs.

Name it -- give yourself or the person to whom you are interacting permission to name a feeling. Researchers have found that merely giving the emotion a label - no matter what label is used - creates additional activity in the frontal cortex. In other words, the mere act of labeling the feeling restores a bridge between the rational cognitive control centers of the brain and the emotional centers of the brain.

Use it -- now that both the thinking/processing center and the feeling center of the brain are engaged, it's time to dig under that feeling and work toward a solution - a conflict outcome that can be more positive for both parties. Open-ended questions such as "what might happen if...", or "how could we make that work...", or "what would it take for this..." are valuable tools at this point.

Diffuse it -- once the emotion has been acknowledged, named, and used, it's time to settle all that autonomic system response back down. Nobody wants to go around with their hearts racing and their palms all sweaty and a big icky lead ball in their stomach. The limbic response has served its purpose and it's time for it to go. Slowed breathing, visualizing a peaceful setting, or deliberately putting the face in a calm or happy expression can send afferent sensations to the brain to make the brain release the chemicals to turn off the fight/flight response.

In sum, the limbic or fight/flight response is a valuable condition that has evolved with our brains. It keeps us alive. It gives us valuable signals of threat or peril, as well as redirecting our body's energy to respond to those signals. It is maladaptive to try to ignore this. It is useful to acknowledge it, name it, use it, and then diffuse it. This is what we were created to be able to do.


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