© 2015 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Whether you’re having an argument with a family member, friend or co-worker, it’s easy nowadays to make little conflicts way too big. All around us are repeated images of people arguing and losing control of their emotions – in emails, on the Internet, in movies and on TV – especially in the news (do you know what so-and-so said about you-know-who?) Not only is this unnecessary, but allowing conflicts to get large can be harmful to important relationships, increase the anxiety of those around us (especially children) and lower one’s status in other people’s eyes.
For example, in a recent article in Parade Magazine about the steps to becoming a successful entrepreneur, the author-expert Linda Rottenberg wrote: “The most important step is to manage your emotions.” (“An Entrepreneur Should Never Be a Daredevil,” November 2, 2014) In a recently-reported study about children’s brain development, child psychiatrist and researcher Jeffrey Rowe said the first five years of life are critically important to forming proper brain connections. “If you can’t control yourself, can’t control your emotions, you can’t pay attention to the outside world.” (B.J. Fikes, “Money, brain size linked,” U-T San Diego, March 31, 2015)
This article has some suggestions for keeping conflicts small by managing our emotions. Managed emotions are a big part of our skills-training methods, New Ways for Families® and New Ways for WorkSM, and may be more important in today’s world than ever before.
Try to Avoid This
A Family Feud: An argument in a couple: “You always leave your socks on the floor.” (That’s a little conflict.) “You’re such a slob.” (Now it’s a judgment about the whole person.) “You men, you’re all alike – irresponsible and self-centered!” (Now it’s about a whole gender.) If another family member came into this argument at this point, he or she would probably take gender sides and the conflict could easily get much bigger.
A Workplace Conflict: Some people clean up after themselves in the lunchroom and others don’t. Joe is a cleaner-upper. ”Look at this banana peel and sandwich bag, just left behind.” (A problem to solve.) “Why do I always have to clean up for everyone else!” (Now it’s about being a victim of everyone.) “Maybe I should go someplace to work where I’m appreciated!” (Now it’s about quitting – ending the relationship.)
A Divorce Dispute: Parents have to discuss a change of schedule: “I’ve got an opportunity for this coming Wednesday night – can we switch so I see the kids Tuesday or Thursday?” (A common problem to solve.) “I’ve told you a hundred times, I’m sticking to our Agreement, with no exceptions. 100%. The kids need absolute stability.” (Now we’re slipping into all-or-nothing thinking. Doubtful that it’s been a hundred times. However, rare cases do require no changes, because of extreme manipulation or violence in the past.) “In fact, I’m going to take you back to court to reduce your time with the kids, you f—ing jerk! You’re the worst father/mother in the world.” (Oops. Guess the children’s stability isn’t the issue after all.)
Try This Instead
In all of the above examples, the speaker quickly went from a simple problem to solve into all-or-nothing thinking and intense emotions. We refer to these emotions as unmanaged emotions, because they don’t get the person what the person really wants: respect, peace and quiet, a happy relationship, or whatever they were looking for. Now they have a bigger problem to solve and probably feel helpless or victimized, and distracted. Remember what the brain researcher said above: You can’t pay attention to the outside world when you’re busy reacting. So how can you manage your emotions in situations like this?
1. Regularly remind yourself to keep the conflict small. Ask yourself:
“Is this really a big deal?”
“Can this problem be solved by making a proposal?”
“What is the smallest issue here? Let’s start by solving that.”
“What are my choices here? I always have choices.”
2. Regularly give yourself encouraging statements. This will help you feel less defensive and less likely to over-react to other people’s behavior or emotions:
“It’s not about me!”
“I’m doing fine! I don’t have to prove anything here.”
“I can take a break!”
“I can handle this. No reason to lose control.”
Emotions Are Contagious
This all might seem very easy to do while you’re reading this. But actually it’s harder to do when other people aren’t managing their emotions, because emotions are contagious. There seems to be at least two reasons for this impact on our brains.
Amygdala responses: We have two amygdalae in our brains; one in the middle of each hemisphere. The right amygdala quickly reacts to other people’s facial expressions of fear and anger, and instantly starts a fight, flight or freeze response. Apparently the left amygdala responds more to threats in writing. You can see the protective response happening when someone else over-reacts – it’s usually sudden and extreme, and sometimes shocking in an office or in a meeting. But our prefrontal cortex (right behind your forehead) can over-ride the amygdala and say: Relax, it’s not a crisis. And the amygdala quiets down. This comes with practice – lots of practice telling yourself what’s not a crisis. This is a lot of what adolescence is about: figuring out what are real dangers that need fast all-or-nothing action and what are just problems to solve rationally.
Mirror neurons: Apparently we have neurons in our brains that fire when we do something AND when we just watch someone else doing something. Is seems that it’s a short-cut to learning – our brains are constantly getting us ready to do what others are doing. It may be a part of our group survival skills that we’re born with. Better to quickly run or fight or hide when others are doing so, rather than risk getting isolated and not surviving. But these responses can also be over-ridden – once you know about this. (So now you know about this.) But it also takes practice.
With this knowledge, you can be more specific with yourself when reminding yourself to keep the conflict small:
“I don’t have to mirror other people’s emotions.”
“I’m just having an amygdala response. But it’s not a crisis, so I can relax.”
“I have a choice: to react or focus on problem-solving. This is just a problem to solve.”
Get Support and Consultation
Another way to keep the conflict small is to talk to other people and get encouragement for yourself. This way you’ll feel less defensive and less anxious. Also, get their consultation suggestions for how to deal with a conflict and help keep it small. Ask: “Do you think this is a crisis? What do you see as my choices? What do you suggest?” Just talking to someone else can make a big difference.
You also may be facing a new problem you’ve never faced before. Don’t feel like you have to deal with it alone and don’t feel ashamed of yourself for being in your situation. Today, the types of problems most of us face have come up for thousands or millions of other people. Family issues, workplace conflicts, divorce disputes are extremely common. Yet it’s easy to see these problems as huge and overwhelming, and become isolated and feel helpless. Remind yourself: “It’s just a problem to solve. I can get consultation and suggestions from someone else. I don’t have to deal with this alone.”
Tune Out Extreme Media
Much of today’s media repeatedly shows dramatic images of people losing control over ordinary problems: from sitcoms to movies to the evening news. They compete to grab your attention with more and more extreme behavior, to get viewers and “market share” in the highly competitive world of modern media. But remember mirror neurons. We are absorbing this extreme loss-of-control behavior we observe, even when we aren’t thinking about it. Use your prefrontal cortex and remind yourself: These aren’t crises; they’re entertainment designed to grab my amygdala and mirror neurons. I can tune this out. It’s up to me what I think and feel.
Modern life has made us more aware of problems around the world, and exposes us constantly to other people’s over-reactions to problems. However, we can keep the conflict small, by what we tell ourselves and by understanding that we have control over our emotions to a great extent – especially if we practice encouraging statements and getting support. We’re not alone with these problems – at home or at work. We can handle them and get help when we need it. We can “Keep the conflict small!”
BILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and chief innovation officer of the High Conflict Institute. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high conflict personalities. He is the author of 20+ books and has a popular podcast and a blog on Psychology Today.