Conflict and Three Strategies for Self-Management

Conflict is inherent in your everyday experience.  You meet conflict at the school gate, in traffic, at work, in your home, with friends, family and strangers.  And internal conflict is a real thing too, when you live out of alignment with your values and purpose and your inner critics are keeping you safe and small.

Therefore, this article is about “everyday” conflict and not difficult trauma or significant conflict.  I will mention these more adverse forms of conflict briefly, and point to some resources you might explore if you feel this relates to you.

The Body and Conflict

All situations of conflict, be they external or internal, affect the body.  For most, conflict is threatening.  And that threat activates an ancient response within known as The Stress Response or more colloquially fight, flight (and can also include freeze, fold, fawn).

You’ll be familiar with the feelings: sweaty palms, shallow breath, contracted muscles and a feeling of wanting to run away, attack, collapse, freeze or appease.

Your Reaction to Conflict is Unique to You

Every person reacts differently.  And different situations provoke different reactions.  Some people clench their jaw or chew their tongue or cheek.  Others, breath shallow and quick, while some hold their breath.  Some situations affect the abdominal area.  And you can be more discerning.  Do you feel tightness in the area beneath the belly button?  Or does this situation cause tension in the solar plexus, beneath the sternum?

Your unique reaction to specific scenarios is caused by your personal history and past experience.  Over your lifetime, your nervous system builds a picture of how to react to ensure your survival.  These reactions become habits and so you react to conflict in an unconscious way.  Some might be built through childhood experiences with parents, siblings, friends, teachers and family.  Others might come through adult experiences with partners and work colleagues.  There can be the systemic injustices of governments, poverty, race, gender, sexuality and war.  As well as health issues, natural disasters and the many forms of abuse.

Contraction and Hiding in Conflict

If your reaction to conflict as a child was to become quiet, as an adult you may notice that your throat becomes tight so that you may find it hard to talk.  Perhaps your breathing becomes constricted so that you cannot speak.  Maybe you hid yourself away when faced with conflict as a child.  Or maybe you learned this behaviour in your adulthood.

Either way, as an adult now, you make yourself small so that you “disappear”.  You may feel so averse to conflict and unwanted attention, that you do not speak up at all or dress in such a way that means you are not “seen”.

Being Seen and Heard

Conversely, you might have learned to come out fighting in your childhood when conflict was present.  Then, you are more likely, as an adult, to be more vocal and visible.  You might speak out even when you do not need to.  Or dress in a bright and vibrant fashion as if to draw attention to yourself.  You might be quick to anger or even feel the urge to resort to violence because that is what you learned when you were a child.  Perhaps you experienced conflict as an adult and that has led to feelings of anger and rage that flare up unexpectedly.

The Past becomes Present

There is no right and wrong here.  The way you have learned to survive has been your best attempt that you could make.  It kept you alive.  You stayed safe as much as possible.  It was instinct, unconscious and beyond your control.  After a certain point, these reactions become automatic, habit and you’ll find yourself doing them before you have a chance to change your behaviour.

And that is part of the survival instinct too.  To do these life-saving things in the face of threat, to ensure that you stay safe.  These bodily responses are normal and natural.  They are designed for survival.  So much so that sometimes, you might find yourself reacting to conflict even when you know you are not threatened.  Something on TV happens or you hear someone talk about an event that they experienced, and you can feel yourself reacting.

I recall going to see the original Jurassic Park film in the cinema with a friend.  She became incredibly emotional during the screening and had to leave.  It turns out, her brother had terrorised her as a child with his toy dinosaurs and this film had brought the memories back to her.

Awareness is the first step

Conflict was not something I experienced at home as a child.  I lived alone with my Mum and she was very keen to avoid conflict.  She had experienced conflict when evacuated during the War years with a very volatile, yet loving, family.  They would get very passionate about things which Mum found frightening, and she avoided the conflict as a result.

I did experience conflict at school, with angry teachers and bullying fellow pupils.  My reaction was to give in and acquiesce.  The one time I did stand up to conflict, I hurt someone and was made an example of by the school.  Consequently, I avoid conflict and have to summon resolve to overcome my learned pattern of behaviour.

The question I hear you ask is “How do I change it?  How do I stop doing what I have always done?”

To become free of this pattern of behaviour, you must begin to notice how you are reacting to the situation in the moment.  Ask yourself, “What is my body doing?”  Yes, you might be experiencing anger, anxiety, fear or overwhelm, but how is your body doing that?  Are you bawling your fists?  Do your legs shake?  What muscles are tightening?  Is your breathing rate increasing?  How is your heart feeling?  Noticing these things tells you that you are in The Stress Response or Fight, Flight.

Awareness is the first step.  Now you can ask, “Is this serving me?”  If you really are in danger, then this Stress Response is appropriate.  And if it is not, then you can do something about it.  But what?

In Conflict, Bring the Body into Rest and Digest

Here are three easy access techniques that bring the body out of fight, flight and into rest and digest (known as The Relaxation Response):

  1. Notice your breathing and extend the outward breath
  2. Bring your attention to your bum on the seat or feet on the floor
  3. Centring

Conflict and trauma

So far, I have written about situations that probably apply to the vast majority of people’s experiences.  Those relatively mild events in your past that do not intrude adversely into your daily experience.  These experiences shape you and because they are mild, you are able to make a choice about focusing on them or not.  If you have a habit of folding, being fearful or angry in the face of conflict, you probably have sufficient control to develop awareness of it in the moment and choose to do something different.  Such as I have explained above.  Coaching can be an excellent process to change these behaviours.

Yet, there are experiences of the past that can intrude and are more severe.  Reactions to memories over which you have no control, such as flash backs.  These more severe experiences are usually referred to as trauma and are not within the sphere of coaching.  If you find yourself having these experiences, then please reach out to a psychologically trained professional who will be able to provide you with the safety required as you work together to overcome these challenges.  There is a way forward towards healing and wholeness even in these circumstances.  But it is essential you have the right support.  Websites such as Mind and The Samaritans have contact details of many professional organisations providing support in this way.

Over to You

What is your experience in the body of conflict?  How do you usually react to conflict?  Is that strategy working for you right now?  Would you like to do something different?  If you would like to have a conversation about conflict and how you might be able to self-manage more effectively, please reach out and we can discuss how I might be able to help.

Pass it on

Do you know someone who struggles with conflict?  Is there something in this blog that might be useful to them?  If so, why not forward the link to them and show them that you are thinking of them and that you care.