11 Simple Practices for Keeping Your Cool During Conflict
Part Four: This is the final installment of the “How to Tend and Befriend Conflict” series. If you think you know how to deal with conflict, think again.
Just before COVID struck, I was sitting in my car on an onramp waiting to mount the Bay Bridge, the exceedingly long overpass that connects the city of San Francisco to the East Bay. It was raining, and the traffic was at a standstill. Ahead, I could see a figure with a broad hat coming head-on down the ramp. He was staggering, weaving his way staccato-like through the cars, and screaming into the air. He was also waving a bag wildly that appeared to be holding rocks. The next thing I knew, the figure was stopped in front of my car. His eyes, now in view, had the appearance of a Great White shark: wide, black, and ready to attack.
Suddenly, the bag was slamming down on the hood of my car — over and over, as the figure continued to scream into the air and as rocks flew out onto the road. Sandwiched, with nowhere to go, all I could think to do was honk and scream. But when he made his way to the driver’s side, still wielding the bag like a deranged lumberjack, and found the handle that opened the door and began wielding the bag on my head and body, all rational thought gave way to involuntary action. I twisted in my seat, raised my leg that was snug inside a knee-high leather boot, and plunged the substantive heel into the figure’s abdomen with a force wholly unfamiliar. He staggered backwards, then fell to the ground, the remaining rocks littering the already trash-infested onramp. I scrambled to shut and lock the door, my lungs trying to find air and my heart as desperate to escape my chest as the rest of me was to flee that scene. Then, as if on cue, the traffic slowly started moving.
The ride home I spent cursing all manner of things. My mother, who happened to call a few moments later, was subjected to a series of long and disjointed rants. At one point, she told me I was speaking like a run-away train and to pull over and try to calm down.
“I am calm,” I snapped. “I’m just fine!” I yelled with a fever’s pitch.
Not really. My hands were still shaking, as they gripped the wheel with white knuckles at 10 and 2. And my heart was still pounding, and my thoughts were still a jumbled stew of angst and rage. The funny thing was I had no awareness of anything that was going on inside of me — that is, until I stopped, as advised, and forced myself to become aware; and that’s when things began to settle down.
It is natural to perceive conflict as a threat, and human beings are hardwired to respond to threats.
Your body and brain under conflict
It’s natural to perceive conflict as a threat, and human beings are hardwired to respond to threats. Think of a car coming at you, or, in my case, a crazed man with a bag of rocks. You leap out of the way or plunge a heel into an abdomen with Herculean force, respectively. What’s moving us to act is not adrenaline, as is often thought, although the hormone is involved. It is our autonomic nervous system, an involuntary and reflexive, “behind-the-scenes” mechanism that helps to keep us alive.
Ordinarily, the body functions in a calm and restorative state managed by the parasympathetic nervous system, one of the two main branches of the autonomic nervous system. Here, we can feed and breed, tend and befriend, and rest and digest — essentially, the normal functions of living. When the nervous system perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system, the second main branch, gets involved, shifting us into survival mode by mobilizing the body’s internal resources and releasing a deluge of stress chemicals. This shift causes our heart rate and blood pressure to rise, our muscles to tighten, and all nonessential functions become dormant.
At the same time, the prefrontal cortex area of the brain — where rational, higher-order cognitive functioning occurs — effectively shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is essentially a “super-sensitive” control center that corrals our baser emotions and impulses. Negative emotions become activated. Articulating and expressing feelings or desires in a healthy way can be difficult or exhausting. Our attention narrows and becomes biased to potential threats. Our capacity for empathy lessens, which interferes with prosocial behavior. And we rely on instinctual defensive default patterns of thinking and behavior.
And herein lies the problem. When we perceive interpersonal conflict as a threat, we operate from a place of fear that limits our ability to think clearly, feel freely, act wisely, and relate openly. In short, we lose our ability to be fully in command of ourselves — body, mind, and spirit, and this has a significant effect on our relationships.
The key to engaging conflict better is learning to embrace it, rather than to fear or fight against it. Here are a few tips for doing so.
Practices for embracing conflict and “struggling well”
As we learned in Part One of this series, conflict is simply an organic disruption in human relationships that tells us something isn’t working as well as it should. In this way, conflict is both natural and necessary. While conflict may not feel good in the moment, there are ways to “struggle well” through it.
Shift your thinking. In the midst of conflict or in anticipation of a difficult conversation, remind yourself that conflict can be life-affirming. Conflict presents an opportunity to make things better. It also gives us time to pause, take notice of what’s happening both inside and outside, and to assess the situation and its variables, which presents an opportunity to discern and learn. Conflict likewise keeps things moving, preventing relationships from becoming stagnant, and this presents an opportunity for deepening and growth. Conflict is also a motor for change, which presents the chance to expand and create new.
Teach your body to shift out of survival mode. When tempers run high and fever’s reach a pitch, and the person you’re in conflict with suddenly transforms into a charging great grizzly bear, what’s helpful is to “step off” its path. Breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic or “belly” breathing, is one way to do this.
Another way is grounding. Grounding (or “earthing” as it is sometimes called) is a practice that pulls you out of that impending-doom conflict state by bringing you into the present. The 5–4–3–2–1 technique can be helpful. Begin by noticing your surroundings. Inhale and exhale, slowly and big. Then name 5 things you can see around you, 4 things you can feel (the warmth of your skin, your feet against the floor, the table in front of you), 3 things you can hear, and 2 things you can smell (take a deep breath in). Finally, name 1 good thing about yourself.
Body awareness is a third technique. Take 5 long, deep breaths through your nose, and exhale through puckered lips. You can also stomp your feet on the ground several times, paying attention to the sensations in your feet and legs as you make contact with the ground. Try clenching your hands into fists, then releasing the tension; repeat 10 times. You can also press your palms together. Then press them harder and hold this pose for 15 seconds, paying attention to the tension in your hands and arms. Also, try rubbing your palms together briskly, noticing the sound and the feeling of warmth.
Get comfortable with discomfort. We know that conflict can be stressful. What can help to make a conflicted situation both tolerable and productive is by turning our attention inward or engaging in interoceptive awareness when we feel ourself getting especially stressed, sad, scared, or tense. Interoception helps us to be mindful of what is happening below the surface that might be fueling our feelings, thoughts, and actions. In going into ourselves, we don’t try to quash unpleasant emotions or judge them as wrong or weak. We give them space to tell us something new about what’s going on. We observe and get curious about what needs or desires are not getting met that are, in this case, contributing to the conflict. We also consider what this says about the conflicted situation and us and how we might get creative or even collaborate with others to find new ways to satisfy these things.
Master your emotions. In somatic psychology, the word “titrate” is used to describe how much emotional “flow” we let into our system’s internal reservoir. When we titrate our experience, we keep ourselves in an intentional place of choice and safety by opening and closing the tap on our emotions. It is a process by which we slow down our internal response — emotional, cognitive, and physiological — so that we can more effectively process incoming information and get back into our rational mind. It’s a skill that’s often used to help people heal from trauma, but it can also be helpful for managing overwhelming emotions that hit us during conflict. This article on titration has specific practices to help.
Speaking of emotions…
A Finnish study entitled the Bodily Maps of Emotion revealed how different emotions are universally associated with different regions of the body. Below is an illustration with details. The top row represents the body maps for basic emotions. The bottom row maps a sampling of more complex emotions. Yellow indicates the highest level of activity, followed by red. Black is neutral, while blue and light blue indicate lowered and very low activity, respectively.
Emotions don’t only exist in the mind; they live in the body as well. And how they live there greatly influences not only what we think and how we feel, but also how we act and interact, particularly during conflict. Understanding where and how emotions affect us can go a long way to helping to maintain or regain a sense of calm and perspective that is necessary for engaging conflict well.
Be aware of your vulnerable areas and protect them. Interoceptive awareness and the Bodily Maps of Emotions can help you locate where you are feeling particularly vulnerable in the midst of conflict. Here are a few techniques to help you protect them when a situation heats up.
- Swipe-down: Use your hands to “wipe down” the affected areas. For instance, if the elephant of anxiety has stepped onto your chest, gently move your hand up beneath your collarbone and slowly move it down over your heart. Repeat a few times. Soon you will feel calmer and more reassured.
- Tapping: For years, people thought this practice was, well, crazy, to put it kindly. But after 100+ clinical trials that show its efficacy, even the hard-won U.S. Veteran’s Administration (VA) got hip to the idea — and it works great for conflict. In short, Tapping (aka “Emotional Freedom Technique” or EFT) involves quick, repeated light-touch on specific acupressure points — or energy “hot spots” — to restore balance to the body’s system. The points send electrochemical impulses to the limbic and cortical regions of the brain that control stress and fear, as this breaks the neural links that are causing distressing emotions and unsettling bodily sensations. The good news is that this is a gentle and safe technique that’s easy to do anytime, anywhere. While there is a longer practice that includes tapping the upper quadrant of your body, you can also simply tap with your hands the vulnerable area 8 times consecutively (like you’re sending Morse Code), repeating a comforting phrase as you do, such as “I’m ok, right now, really” (coincidently the title of one of my books). Then shift your fingers an inch or so and repeat the process as necessary, covering the entire vulnerable area. Notice how you’re becoming calmer and more positively energized and confident with each slight shift.
- Holding: Similar to the techniques above, gently place your hands over the vulnerable area and hold. For instance, if someone says something that makes you feel disgusted and your stomach lurches, move both hands over your abdomen, one above and one below, and simply breathe into them, feeling light and reassuring pressure. This will lessen your vulnerabilities and make you feel more protected.
The following practices are particularly good when you’re standing during conflict and your knees, feet, fingers, or anything else is feeling shaky or trembling.
- Find your position: Consciously feel the ground supporting you. Take a small step backwards or sideways to break up the sensation. Repeat as necessary.
- Rock: Move slightly from side to side and front to back. Too much movement will make you appear restless. A little movement makes you seem open and flexible.
- Grip: Hold something small: a rubber ball, a stone, some loose change. Try squeezing or palpating it with your hand or turning it over. This will give you a way and a safe place to channel the energy of conflict. It also gives you a way to become “unstuck” — to become free from the discomfort of conflict in your body.
- Open your chest. Drop your shoulders and clutch your hands behind your back. This naturally opens your chest and lungs, which makes breathing easier, and so helps to calm you down. It is also steadying and reassuring. *Note: stand on the balls of your feet when doing this. It reinforces to yourself and to others a sense of inner strength, as well as emits a willingness to engage. Leaning back on your heels reinforces a sense of distance, fear, and reticence that creates an atmosphere of distrust.
Know (and pay attention to) your “window of tolerance.” “Window of tolerance” is a phrase coined by psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dr. Dan Siegel to describe normal brain/body reactions, especially in the face of adversity. The idea is that human beings have an optimal arousal zone that allows emotions to ebb and flow, which, in turn, enables a person to function most effectively and manage the everyday demands of life without difficulty. When a person is within their window of tolerance, they are, generally speaking, able to think rationally, reflect and discern, function well, and make decisions without feeling overwhelmed. But when the stress of conflict causes us to become dysregulated, the effect can feel more like being pushed out of that window. Things like sudden noises, a benign remark, or dropping something as simple as a pen become more rigid, intense, or chaotic and harder to endure. Overreacting to harmless triggers or false alarms — which often happens during conflict — is a hallmark of being out of your window of tolerance. This article goes into more detail with specific practices for staying “off the ledge.”
The connection between our mind and our body is something we may instinctively feel, but in the heat of battle, we often pay little attention to that bond and what’s going on inside us. And what’s going inside has a tsunami-effect on how we feel, what we think, worry about, or conclude, and how we act.
The sooner we start teaching our body that conflict isn’t a threat; instead, that it is simply natural and necessary to make something that isn’t working as well as it could or should be better, the sooner our lives and our relationships will become richer, stronger, and more sustainable.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: the biggest danger with conflict isn’t that it exists; rather, that it shuts us down, distorts our thinking, and prevents us from seeing the “whole picture.”
Wherever human beings are conflict will happen, plain and simple. What determines whether it is destructive or constructive is how we choose to respond to conflict. And yes, we always have a choice in how to respond. That choice is made easier, more rationally, more healthily, and more wisely when pay attention to and recognize how conflict is living inside us.