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Many people who are familiar with conflict know that there are a number of different ways of responding to it and that some people are more skilful than others at dealing with conflict. Often when we are caught up in confrontations with other people we may respond in one of three ways, which are reactive to conflict – fighting, avoiding or pacifying others. If you feel you have an inadequate response to conflict, then it’s often because you are reacting defensively, you are feeling overwhelmed, or trying to placate the other person out of fear. As such, learning the mindfulness practices below will help you address and reduce your response to fear, anger and stress in the middle of a conflict.
The responses to conflict among human beings varies from extreme rage to avoidance and these responses are often the result of conditioning in childhood. Most often, these reactions arise from an inability to cope with or tolerate conflict without regulating their emotions, or managing their behaviours. In some situations any one of these responses may be appropriate if they are taken consciously and proportionately, but our reactions are often governed by an over-reliance on a single primary response, which means we are unable to be flexible, adapt or manage conflict effectively. Often, we respond unconsciously and out of control, without pausing to observe or consider our options. We just act. It's clear before we get caught up in conflict we tend to rely on our default response. This is why the four steps below may help in regulating emotional states and managing responses to conflict.
The first step in this mindfulness practice involves switching off your ‘auto-pilot’ and pausing awhile to become conscious of the sensations in the body, feelings, and thoughts that are present within your experience. It's often tempting for us to ignore unpleasant thoughts and feelings, or to form judgements about whether a feeling is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. However, looked at objectively all emotions have a purpose or value which supports our survival. For example, you may think of anger as negative because there's a tendency towards feeling volatile, destructive or out of control, but equally it can be the driving force behind motivation, protecting us from danger or standing up for ourselves. So the aim in this step of the mindfulness practice is to observe feelings of anger without judgement or prejudice. To simply notice what is happening. To use your five senses to identify your physical sensations, emotions and thoughts. To notice what is going on and recognise your internal states. One helpful suggestion is to notice what's happening in your body by using a body scan to identify internal physical states such as hot, cold, tense, relaxed, itchy, light, heavy, hard, soft and so on.
Occasionally voicing a question out aloud can help to initiate this process in the present moment, such as: ‘what is happening to me now?’, ‘what am I feeling at this moment?’, or ‘what is going on outside me?’ This helps us focus our attention on our inner experience and identify the source of our feelings and sensations. It also helps to name emotions and build an appropriate vocabulary for them, as people can often have difficulty expressing and articulating feelings.
This is about creating a small pause, mentally, before you react to a stimuli or person in your environment who is acting aggressively or competitively. This may be done as an act of self-talk or internal dialogue, which simply says: ‘pause’. Giving you enough time to step back from a situation before you get caught up in events. You may do this by taking a breath, blinking your eyes slowly before you speak, or dropping your shoulders to release any build-up of tension. This allows you the freedom to step back from conflict and observe what's happening before acting impulsively.
Mindfulness sometimes proposes that we can choose to let life to be as it is…This means allowing difficult sensations and experiences to exist without trying to change them. Frequently, our response to distressing thoughts and emotions is knee-jerk response to free ourselves from the immediate impact and intensity. We may do this by:
Fighting – using anger to protect and defend ourselves, by projecting intense emotional states like anger onto others
Escaping – dissociating from our internal states by running away from confrontation with others
Avoiding – doing everything in our power to avoid coming into contact with the external stimuli of our sensations and emotions
Catharsis – purging ourselves of unpleasant feelings by releasing ourselves from tension through sudden outbursts of emotion
Reassurance – seeking the comfort and reassurance of others who might rescue us from negative emotions
Forbearance – passively giving into emotions without paying any attention to them and feeling ‘victimized’
Instead of letting go of a feeling to soon we may need to observe it first and allow ourselves time and space to process difficult emotions. This means practicing a genuine sense of tolerance – whereby we actively embrace the presence of our emotions in order to inform us of our internal states. So a helpful skill when using this mindfulness exercise is to use a word or phrase during your self-talk which supports your intention to tolerate the experience just as it is. Mentally welcoming the presence of a distressing emotion in order to appreciate and understand it better. This is developing a kind of internal consent to the feelings, or thoughts that arise in your consciousness. Not to grasp hold of them, or get caught up in them but simply to observe their presence within you. This also means being aware of your tendency to avoid certain emotions, but instead choosing to stay with them awhile before processing them and moving on or letting go. It is as if you are creating and ‘experiencing self’ and an ‘observing self’ which can stand back and look at your emotional states more objectively and see if they are appropriate and proportionate to the situation.
This means objectively evaluating your responses to conflict and the range of options available to you. By regaining a sense of balance and realising that conflict is an inevitable part of life as we negotiate our needs and boundaries with others. This is especially true for recurring difficulties like marital problems or the entrenched positions we may take in competing with colleagues at work. In these cases, enquiring into your experiences in greater depth and examining the range of possible alternatives to your reactions can be invaluable. Again ask yourself relatively objective or neutral questions which are not emotionally loaded, such as:
What is the underlying sense of this experience (positive, negative, or neutral)?
What is the stimulus for this difficult experience?
Does it come from me or the other person?
Do I recall similar triggering events in the past and is there a rigid pattern to my response?
Are my emotions intense, appropriate or disproportionate?
Do I respond defensively or seek to justify my reactions?
Do I have one version of the truth to explain these difficult feelings?
Are there other versions of the truth?
Can I see things from the other person's point of view?
Do I feel the need to judge what is happening as right or wrong?
Could I respond differently?
This means detaching yourself as a person from the experience you are having. The final practice is not so much an active response to conflict as consciously letting go and withdrawing. Detaching yourself, means that through identifying, pausing, accepting and being curious about your experience, you become aware that you are not the sensation or emotion that is causing you distress and you can let it go now. It means you have ceased to identify yourself with the feelings as if they were fixed or permanent and you allow yourself to let go of the feeling, allowing it to pass and move on.