Why does Conflict Make your Brain Go @#%%@@?

Stephanie Brun de Pontet
Stephanie Brun de Pontet

Most of us don’t like conflict.  This is reasonable – most of us have had conflicts in the past that damaged an important relationship, led to hurt feelings, anger, frustration – basically, negative emotions & negative outcomes.  In addition, many of us feel like we are at our ‘worst’ in conflict – we are not able think well (brain fog) so our reasoning is not as strong as we are used to, we feel blood rushing through our body in weird ways, and we may feel like we are ‘out of control’ – in short, the whole experience is physically unpleasant too. 

As a result, it seems reasonable that many people go out of their way to avoid conflict: conflict equals bad feelings and possible danger, I am a rational person, I don’t want any of that – I will avoid the conflict.  This is particularly true in the context of family business where conflict avoidance is a very common phenomenon.  In fact, we often point out to families that their conflict avoidance is unsurprising because their closest personal relationships, professional identity and fulfillment, and source of financial security are all tied together – really, who wants to rock that boat?!

Yet, while we don’t like conflict – we all know disagreements are natural, differing points of view can lead to richer decisions, and avoidance does not lead to solutions.  So while full avoidance is rarely the answer, the challenge is learning how to disagree with others in a way that does not degenerate into unhealthy conflict.  Given the emotional load of a family business this can be hard.   When it feels like there is a lot on the line, the most primitive (reptilian) part of your brain typically takes over: the famed ‘fight or flight’ response.  This system assumes you are facing an existential threat (think wild Tiger) and will flood your brain and your major muscles with clear signals that you need to either stand and fight or run for the hills – two rational options when faced with a Tiger.  

However, when it is a family conflict that is leading to this response, we would suggest that neither fleeing the room nor engaging in fisticuffs is probably a great solution.  What you do need to do is to find a way to re-engage with your rational mind.  While this can be easier said than done, the first step is often to recognize when you are responding in a ‘fight or flight’ manner.  When your primitive brain has taken over you are really no longer capable of rational thought, you are not likely listening, and you are also likely not doing a good job of making your point either.  If you become aware that your reptilian brain is now in charge it may be a good idea to seek a ‘time out’ from the discussion to give everyone a chance to cool down and return to rational brain work.  Be clear with one another that this is not avoidance – set a time to return to the discussion, but give yourselves a chance to cool off as needed, to ensure that when you get back together, it is to collaborate on a solution – rather than expend your energies trying to bash one another and prove why you are ‘right’ and they are ‘wrong.’

For more ideas on managing family conflict, please join the webinar my colleague David Lansky is running on this very topic on September 21stClick here for more information on the Effective Strategies for Avoiding and Managing Family Conflict webinar.


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