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Think right before you fight

06 December 2013

Dive into your brain's pre-conceived notions and learn two game-changing strategies for constructive conflict resolution.

Our brains are constantly making predictions based on what we experience in our environment. We don't have to expend any energy in doing this. It is a basic function of our brain and it is a critical function to be aware of when dealing with conflict. These predictions, (or attributions of meaning) play a very important part in our lives as they directly influence our emotions. Consider the following example: You are out running in the woods and you see a snake lying in the path ahead.

Your brain sees more than what there is

As you see the snake your mind runs a scenario through your head. You imagine running down the path, only this time, you don’t see the snake. Instead, you step on it and feel its teeth sink into your ankle.

This happens without any conscious effort

The effect of this scenario is an immediate and strong fear response, possibly even a painful sensation in your ankle, where the imaginary snake bit you. Without any conscious effort, your body has flushed itself with adrenalin, priming you to take action and depriving you cognitively. In a case like this it is very easy for us to lose sight of the fact that, in the real world, you stopped well before the snake. The danger, and your response to it all happened in your head.

The same thing happens when we get caught in a conflict situation.

It is easy to come up with win-win solutions when no one feels threatened, but how often is that the case? Our biggest challenge when dealing with conflict, is making sure that the involved parties feel safe enough to participate in dialogue. How on earth can we manage that, when our minds predict worse-case scenarios without our conscious effort? Just walking into a room with an angry face and body posture, can prime many just observing you, to react emotionally and be on the defensive. This basically means to say that before you have done much, people are already making assumptions about your state and your motives.

We don’t have free-will, we have free-won’t

Professor Jeffery M Schwartz coined the term "Free-won't", as opposed to free-will to illustrate the fact that our bodies respond to our environments pre-consciously. This is not to say that we are without any control - mindlessly reacting to our environments. This is just to say that our level of self-awareness and self-control are indispensable, as we only have milliseconds in which to interrupt some of our natural responses and modify our behaviour in response to a perceived stimulus.

Why is the speed of response so important?

In the book, Crucial Confrontations the following example is used: “We see what that person did and then tell ourselves a story about why he or she did it, which leads to a feeling, which leads to our own actions. If the story is unflattering and the feeling is anger, adrenaline kicks in. Under the influence of adrenaline, blood leaves our brains to help support our genetically engineered response of “fight or flight,” and we end up thinking with the brain of a reptile. We say and do dim-witted things.” (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, 2013) If we don't notice and interrupt ourselves when we start making unflattering assumptions about the behaviour of another person we will have to bear the burden of the subsequent emotion. With our brainpower impaired and with our emotions out of control, we perceive a severely limited set of options with with which we can respond to the conflict, many of which end badly for all participants involved. Losing your temper might feel justified in the moment, but it could mean a loss of credibility from your co-workers. Throwing a temper tantrum might feel necessary to get what you want, but it might evoke massive resistance, even disgust from observers severely limiting your influence with them. So if we only have split seconds in which to modify our response to conflict, what are our options?

1. Get yourself a better pair of glasses

One way to ensure a better reaction to conflict is to see it in a better light. Most of us view conflict as a negative and unwelcome thing in our lives. Maintaining this perspective ensures a negative reaction when the inevitable conflict does occur. You need to believe that conflict is useful, good even, if done right.

Consider these potential benefits of conflict:

  • Conflict is an opportunity for you to expand your view of reality

  • Conflict allows you to get a glimpse into what another person really values - useful information in any negotiation.

  • Engaging in constructive conflict saves you from eventually exploding in an unhealthy and embarrassing way. In short - it helps to keep you sane.

  • Conflict often provides you with authentic and valuable feedback.

  • Other beliefs that are critical to dealing with conflict constructively include:

  • The belief that your feelings and opinions are valid and important

  • The belief that others' feelings and opinions are valid and important

  • The belief that other viewpoints leads to more information, which leads to better decisions

If you buy into these ideas, you will most likely feel safer when in a conflict situation, since conflict is no longer scary and to be avoided at all costs. You actually get some value out of it. You can engage in conflict with a sense of curiosity.

2. Interrupt yourself

Because our minds respond very quickly with worst-case scenarios, when faced with anything that could hint at potential conflict, and because you only have milliseconds in which to modify your automatic response, you need to keep your brain primed with positive interrupts. This could take the form of a mantra, a quote or a phrase that is easy to remember, quick to recite and in some way meaningful to you. Make sure you repeat it to yourself often and keep visual reminders everywhere. I personally save a daily message on my phone's background.

Here are some ideas for positive interrupts:

  • I accept myself as I am

  • My feelings are valid and important

  • My thoughts do not mean anything

  • I am not the victim of the world I see

Whenever you notice yourself catastrophising (imagining the worst), interrupt yourself with a positive affirmation, phrase or belief. This will greatly affect your state of mind and your ability to deal with conflict constructively. I hope these two simple ideas will help you to see conflict as a potentially useful part of our normal existence.


Patterson, K., Grenny , J., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2013). Crucial accountability. (2nd ed.). McGrawHill Education. Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon via Compfight cc


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