Let’s say you’ve had a run-in or heated argument with your partner, spouse, family member, or colleague. And chances are, there was an underlying negotiation going on. Because whether we know it or not, we’re always negotiating, both in our personal and professional lives.
In my experience, people most often do one of two things in these instances – fight or give in. Either way, it’s common to stew for hours, days, or even longer, about it.
When we feel attacked or threatened, our brain is hard-wired to create a “fight-flight-freeze” reaction. While this reaction was useful to long-ago ancestors to protect them from wild animals, not so much in our interpersonal relationships today.
When we react by fighting, fleeing or freezing, the reasoning part of the brain shuts down. And you let the other person determine your reaction. Continuing to interact from fight or flight will only damage the relationship, perhaps irreparably.
The resentment we carry around from that one incident drains us not only emotionally, but also physically. It takes away time that can be better spent on enjoying a moment with our child, a friend, or full-on engagement in our work.
But it’s when we’re in conflict with someone close to us that we most need the capacity to act rationally and compassionately. So we can resolve the conflict in a way that maintains the relationship, even strengthens it.
So, let’s back up to that heated argument or run-in. What can we do differently next time to turn a potentially stress-creating, energy-robbing incident into an exchange or negotiation where we can influence the outcome? Where we don’t have to choose between fighting or giving in?
The third option is to pause and choose your words. Intentionally respond with what’s most likely to lead to the outcome you want.
This is tough. It takes practice. At first, it might help to physically remove yourself from the situation. For example, if you find yourself becoming triggered in a meeting or verbal exchange, you might simply say, “I think it might help to take a quick break. I’ll be right back.”
At that moment, it helps to take two or three deep, slow breaths. Change your body position. These send signals to your body that a fight-or-flight reaction is not necessary. The key is to calm your emotional reaction. This allows the rational part of your brain to take over.
Or, if you’ve stepped away, you might elicit compassion for the other person by understanding they would not act that way if they weren’t scared of something. Or there’s something else going on with them that has nothing to do with you.
Once you’ve calmed your emotional reaction, you can effectively listen and learn where the other person is coming from, how they view the world. Show you’re listening by using a phrase like “I hear you.” or “It sounds like you feel ____.” This is likely to lead to greater trust and the other person is far more likely to listen and hear your version of things.
By doing this consistently, over time, you will have greater confidence in the value you bring to your relationships. And you will have less fear in the face of conflict.
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