Discord, difference, conflict, dispute, whichever way you term it, when there is a polarisation of interests, views and values, there is usually an accompanying behavioural response from the people involved. Human beings are living, breathing, and wonderfully emotional creatures. That we have a physiological and feeling response to inter-personal issues is not surprising, and should be cherished. Yet, it is this physiological response that can so often trip us up when confronted by difference and involved in conflict. We slip into automatic responses, the classic “fight or flight” being one such, where we either attack the other person, and/or leave the point of contact. We entrench ourselves into our positions, build the wall, and throw grenades over the top in the hope that one such missile will shift the other’s position, or at least let them know how much the dispute is hurting us.
We all have different experiences when in conflict, but for most/all of us, at one time or another, there will be a strong emotional response that can make it difficult to stay in reasoned contact with the other. The good news is that there are ways of changing things for the better. I’m going to explore one here, and that is to get MORE in touch with the messages your body is giving you. This can seem counter-intuitive. For example: I’m imagining being in conflict with someone, my heart is beating faster, my stomach is in an intense knot, and my automatic response is “DESENSITISE! DESENSITISE!”. Yet as we cut off from our bodies, we cut off from our feelings, and as we cut off from our feelings we lose an essential part of the information system that supports us to make reasoned and well-informed decisions in inter-personal dialogue.
Shifting our patterns of relating is a process, these patterns have usually developed over a long period of time. However, the good news is that it is possible. My experience is that regular, graded, exposure to situations of inter-personal difference and attendant awareness of physiological responses in these situations pays dividends. I’m not suggesting we pick a daily fight with the supermarket cashier, but I am suggesting we persistently pay attention to our experience when in a context where discord is in the air, and begin to understand more about our personal responses in these situations. It’s learning and growth for free, no course fees required. Our culture focuses on cognitive, and technical skills development and tends to ignore furthering the knowledge and intelligence we hold in our bodies.
As we pay attention to our experience, over time we can gain more control over our experience and be better able to stay in contact with the other person/people we are in conflict with, and work through or just accept the differences we have.
Yep, great, you may say, but how do I “pay attention to my experience”? For me, the very basis of self-awareness is breathing. Breathing is probably a thing that most of us take for granted, yet it is the basic fuel of life. So try asking yourself, “how do I administer this fuel to myself? What are my breathing patterns? Do I grab a whole load of oxygen, and then shut up shop for 30 seconds, then go again, or am I a regular, “little in, little out, little in, little out”? Become interested in your breathing patterns, it is the process that regulates our physiological system. And when in that place with someone else where there is difference in the air, find the place in your body where you notice your breathing and just follow it for some seconds. If regulating yourself is the most important thing in that moment, the other person can always repeat the point they’ve just made!
In summary, make relationship a whole experience, not a cognitive battle zone. Through this, we can ease ourselves into the warm bath of difference, an acceptance of the experience we are having with another. In case we ever meet, I’m going to add a disclaimer; I’m still very much working on it myself! The aim being, each day, hopefully a little bit more, a little bit wiser.
Finally, if the above makes not a jot of difference to an overwhelming state of rage, fear, anxiety, or frustration; gaze at the photo at the top of this blog for a while and hope for the best! It’s always good to have a back-up plan. Bye for now.
Photo credit: René Reichelt on Unsplash