Would you like to know why the colour gray is critical for resolving conflict? Keep reading to find your answer.
I’m working on designing several courses on conflict management, collaborative negotiation and collaboration for several UN peacekeeping agencies, and in honour of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers on 29 May, I thought what better time to share a few tidbits.
I’ll let you in on some of what I’ve got planned.
We as humans are amazing at many things – art, science, technology and more.
We suck at conflict though. Our brains simply aren’t built for conflict.
Let me rephrase that.
Our brains are built for fight, freeze or flee, but since when are those good reactions to most conflict?
Yes, there are exceptions, when it makes sense for your safety, to flee. And yes, it’s possible to find yourself in a place where you may have to actually fight. But in the circumstances, I’m talking about those are the exceptions.
So here’s a 101 primer on your brain on conflict and then I’ll share some tips for how you can override some of our automatic, unhelpful responses.
We like to think of ourselves as rational human beings, but emotions play a HUGE role in conflict. Here’s what I mean.
When sensory info comes into our brain, we immediately and unconsciously make one of two decisions.
- Can I eat it? or
- Is it going to eat me?
If we decide we can “eat it”, that means we feel safe.
Our brain has decided everything is copacetic and we can get on with the task at hand. It’s then and only then, that we use our prefrontal cortex, which not only is the most sophisticated and newest part of the brain, it’s also the seat of executive functioning, for things like strategic thinking, humour, creativity, innovation, and yes, conflict resolution.
On the other hand, if our brain decides “it’s going to eat me,” that means our brain has decided we are unsafe, embarrassed, shamed, triggered, afraid, angry, unsettled, nervous etc.
Our brain starts screaming at us that we’re in conflict. It’s at that point that our brains downshift and start using the oldest part of the brain, the part we have in common with reptiles. And that dear one, is when the fight, freeze or flee response kicks in.
That’s when blood starts draining from our brains and goes to our hands, because whether we’ve ever thrown a punch or not, our body is getting ready to fight. Our hearing actually decreases as well.
Not exactly the best place to be to resolve a conflict. In fact, it’s the worst!
This is when harsh words get said, people do unexpected things, blow things out of proportion, make bad decisions, and the conflict escalates before you can bat an eye.
In this state, we tend to do more of whatever isn’t working, like repeating ourselves for the fiftieth time, speaking louder, gesticulating wildly etc.
Hope is at hand however.
While your brain is busy trying to sell you a false bill of goods, that your only options are to fight, flee or freeze, I’m here to tell you differently.
You’ve got more options than you think (check out my post “How I found options with a fan when faced with cheetah, leopard and lions.”). And one of them involves the colour gray.
When we’re in conflict, we get positional – a.k.a. “my way or the highway” kind of thinking. We think and act in dichotomies – right/wrong, black/white, yes/no etc.
Just when we desperately need flexibility, we get more strongly rooted to our position and we get less flexible.
All of which are the exact opposite of what helps resolve a conflict.
Enter the colour gray. As in gray thinking.
Instead of black or white, yes or no, right or wrong, let’s think in shades of gray.
Another way to think of it is putting yourself on a continuum and being able to shift up and down the continuum. I call this gray thinking or continuum thinking.
Here are some examples of continuums when it comes to conflict resolution:
- Direct and indirect (directly resolving a conflict means addressing the issues head-on while indirect means through nuances, subtle communication, a third party etc.)
- Expressive and instrumental (I explain this more in detail below)
- Innervism and activism (ditto)
- Community led and individually led (resolving a conflict in a community led manner means there are mechanisms in place, regardless of the specific conflict and parties involved, to move through the conflict, whereas individually led conflict resolution means the parties themselves decide how to resolve it)
Notice the use of ‘and’ instead of ‘or.’ Just by opening up a continuum, we give ourselves more room to think, more choices, more options etc.
The next time you find your brain trying to convince you that you have no other options other than fight, flee or freeze, take a deep breath and consider how your situation would look on a continuum. Identify where you’re currently at on the continuum, where your place of comfort is and then (here’s the key) move up and down that continuum. You’ll open up way more options for moving through the conflict.
Here are a couple of real life examples from a recent workshop I taught.
Expressive and Instrumental
These are terms coined by the fabulous Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor. Expressive essentially means you prefer to focus on the process, the emotional, intuitive, relational aspects in a conflict. While instrumental means you prefer to focus on getting things done, resolving the conflict, ticking that item off your to-do list.
Here’s the important part.
When we’re in conflict, remember how I said we tend to do more of whatever’s not working? We also get more rooted to our position and that means, for example, that if I tend to be expressive, not only do I get MORE expressive, but I expect everyone else to join me on my place on the continuum. I tend to see the positive aspects of my style and the negative aspects of others.
Let’s flip that switch.
Check out the screengrab from a recent workshop where folks placed themselves on the continuum. Let’s blend the positives of each style – focus on process, creating a safe space, honouring how people are feeling etc. AND being task-oriented, moving forward, dealing with issues and resolving the conflict.
By the way, by placing ourselves on a continuum, it gives us so much insight as to where people’s strengths lie and where there may be blind spots. Take the picture below, for example. Because no one put themselves on the instrumental end of the continuum, I would expect this group to be more biased towards process (expressive) and perhaps have some blind spots when it comes to decisively naming the conflict, taking concrete steps toward resolving it etc. (instrumental).
Innervism and Activism
The term innervism belongs to the fabulous Elizabeth Lesser. I read about it in her book Cassandra Speaks: When Women Are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. And I wrote about it here.
Innervism is essentially paying attention to your own issues, your ‘stuff’, your power and privilege, your triggers and doing your ‘shadow work.’ In contrast, activism is outwardly focused – working on social change, changing inequitable structures, policies, laws etc.
Both are critical. If you suspect an either/or is getting in the way when trying to move through a conflict, first place yourself on the continuum and then flex. Look at the situation as you move up and down on the continuum. What could you do yourself, your innervism work, to move the conflict forward? AND what inequitable structures, policies, etc. need to be addressed to move the situation forward?
Take a look at the screengrab from a recent leadership workshop I taught. Notice how everyone put themselves on a different place on the continuum. instead of wasting time bowing to your brain chains, a.k.a. I gotta be right and fight, flee or freeze, let’s look at all the options that the different places on the continuum provide. What a gift. What a game-changer.
Let’s hear it for yes, and instead of black/white, yes/no, either/or. We need to make room for both.
Your brain and the world thanks you.
Now go on and learn, laugh and lead
- Need to get a handle on your emotions while resolving conflict. Check out my dryer vent approach.
- How do you spell the word I’m saying in this mini clip? Get your answer before you read my post Time for audience participation (that means you): we see what we expect to see on my funny, biased-based mix-up.
- Here’s two more surprisingly simple yet highly effective ways to manage yourself during conflicts. Read them and sigh with relief, then practice the next time you’re in conflict and share them widely.
P.S. Curious to know more about your worldview and perspective? Check out my Life Lenses® online assessment.
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