Wish you knew how to be calm during conflict?
Dare 4: Whatever We Pay Attention to Grows
(yes, I’m writing another book – this time one about respecting self & others, and it will deal with handling conflict, deflating defensiveness, and creating communities of mutual respect and accountability – you can sign up by subscribing to “respect 101” below or in the sidebar… it’s for wives, husbands, parents, teachers, leaders of any kind, including facilitators of Daughters of Sarah or our other training courses, and even teens)
Stephanie watched the door to the car close. She took a deep breath and started walking toward the paper company headquarters, where she worked as a sales representative. Her brow furrowed and concern washed across her face as she entered the building and headed toward the elevator. Thankfully she was early enough this morning that no one from her department was riding up with her. Today would be the day she would confront another sales rep for the company, Lisa, about the comments she kept making about her to others in the office. Things were getting out of hand. Stephanie had grown more uncomfortable as the side glances and raised eyebrows from the sales staff not only continued, but increased in frequency. She got off the elevator and thought through what she would say.
About a month ago, Lisa’s boss passed over her and gave a large new account to Stephanie. One of Stephanie’s friends on the sales team let her know Lisa had been voicing her concerns rather loudly to a few others. Accusations of inappropriate behavior between Stephanie and her boss were shared in hushed voices throughout the office. Stephanie had put off the conversation long enough. She had worked hard at the company and earned the account and didn’t appreciate the insinuation otherwise. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she thought about the situation and what her coworkers might be saying or thinking about her.
Last week, when she walked into the break room to grab her lunch, she encountered Lisa chatting up several other sales people. She immediately stopped talking and started to laugh when she saw Stephanie enter the room. Lisa made eye contact with the others and raised her eyebrows in a “See what I mean??” sort of way. Stephanie didn’t know what to say, and the snickering of the group felt humiliating to her. She just wanted out of the room.
Grabbing her lunch quickly, heart pounding, she left.
Today, however, things would be different. Stephanie was going to deal with this once and for all. After getting her coffee, reading through a few email and scheduling her day, Stephanie looked at the clock and her heart started to pound. She wasn’t great at confrontation. She seldom approached others when they had hurt her feelings, and when she did, somehow, she ended up apologizing and regretting saying anything.
She got up and left her cube. Maybe I should just forget about saying anything, she thought to herself. Lisa should be coming in at any moment now, and Stephanie had already positioned herself outside the woman’s cube to wait. Bob, a manager from the production department, walked by on his way to her boss’s office. He raised an eyebrow at her and smiled as he passed. What’s that about? she wondered.
“Well, Stephanie! Bob and I were just talking about you!” Lisa’s bubbly voice contained just a tad of sneer.
“Oh? About what?” she inquired. I can’t do this, she thought.
“Just your um, rapid advancement here,” Lisa replied, no longer trying to hide the contempt. The left side of her mouth turned upward in a smirk, and she finished her disrespect with a complimentary eye roll.
Stephanie’s heart pounded louder. She couldn’t think straight. Why was I thinking of confronting this woman? I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to be here right now… Stephanie’s face now matched the crimson blouse she wore. She shook her head and heart pounding, confused, turned and walked away.
“Was it something I said?” Lisa giggled after her.
What happened to me? Why does this always happen when I want to stand up for myself? Stephanie went to the ladies room and noticed her hands shaking.
Stephanie’s reaction to confrontation is typical in our Western culture. Our amygdala and our hypothalamus, hormone-regulating organs in our brain, are hard-wired, when faced with threat, to flood our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol. This is a natural response called, “fight, flight, or freeze.” Essentially what happens is the blood rushes to the big muscle groups to enable us to run or engage in combat, or lock up physically. We then have access to mainly only our primitive brain functions, which focus on survival.
In other words, we become about as smart as lizards.
- Selling your soul for a paycheck
- Negative thinking
- Toxic relationships
- Worry and rumination
- Childhood trauma
- Unforgiven resentment
Check her article here for more details on those.
You don’t have to become a lizard, however.
There are ways to combat the amygdala and hypothalamus responses. In today’s dare story, Stephanie is clearly dealing with a few of the above, including negative thinking, toxic relationship, worry, anger, and helplessness. Her response to the stimuli was normal and even expected. She can, however, overcome this reaction, and so can you, regardless of whether your tendency is “flight” like hers was, or “fight,” or “freeze.” Here’s some long-range care helps to consider. And if you are a parent or a leader, you might be interested in this Prezi presentation on the research on how to help others dealing with this response. We take the science and the Biblical parenting principles and help parents coach their teens and tweens in our book, With All Due Respect (Thomas Nelson, 2016). We also address this issue in marriage in The Respect Dare (Thomas Nelson, 2012). We will also address it here, over the next several dares.
Conflict & Respect 101
Be more respectful & you’ll help others avoid the “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
What is important is to remember that long-term, these things can actually damage a person’s psyche to the point of mental illness.
Yes, I said that. The research is in.
We are going to deal with a number of options in dealing with the amygdala that have been proven scientifically to reduce the reaction and re-engage the brain more quickly. We’ll start with the first, the most simple and build from there. Doing nothing at all keeps us in the hyper-alert state for 20 minutes if female, 30 minutes if male. If you take flight, or freeze and do nothing, short-term, you avoid a conflict, but long-term, you damage the relationship – and yourself. Here’s why if you are interested in the research. It’s worth a read, especially if you are dealing with a marriage situation and the woman is taking flight to deal with the issues – it’s predictive of divorce if serious intervention isn’t made.
To help herself, the first step Stephanie should take is to breathe and concentrate on her breathing. She should breathe in slowly, through her nose, which stimulates a calming effect in the body. The motion of slow air in and out across the little hairs in our nose causes a hormonal response and short-circuits the fast breathing already going on – the massive input of oxygen slows, as does our release of stimulating hormones. This calming effect is significant and supported by research.
Had Stephanie been around a good friend afterward, her friend might have asked her a “How?” question to re-engage her higher brain functions. “How do you feel right now?” is a good one and fits most cases. “How do you wish you would have handled that?” can also be helpful, particularly if being asked by someone who can help her. There’s no need to wait 20-30 minutes to calm down or wait for someone else to do that – a simple, “Can I help? How are you feeling right now?” is huge! If not done in sincere compassion, however, your friend/husband/kid/coworker might take even greater offense, so be sure to be super-gentle!
Bottom line for you:
Pay attention to your breathing to help yourself get calm and your brain will re-engage & you’ll stop being a lizard.
Bottom line for others:
Help your kids or team members become calm by asking them “How do you feel right now?” to help them re-engage their higher brain functions.
What about you?
- Most people react with a “flight, fight, or freeze” response either in similar circumstances or when dealing with the same people. What is your specific situation?
- Did you find yourself in any of the 10 circumstances that can cause the “flight, fight, or freeze,” responses? If so, which and how do they impact you and your relationships?
- How do you see them impact others in your life?
- What is your typical response to threat? Do you take flight? Do you fight? Or freeze and not know what to do, staring at the person in front of you, saying nothing?
- This is the first step in overcoming being conflict avoidant, which is common in our culture. How will being able to engage in conflict successfully in the future impact your life (after you are able to get more control of your amygdala and learn the skills to engage well)?
Glad to be on the journey with you!
Love to you,
If you haven’t heard the FamilyLife Today! broadcasts, check them out while they are still free!