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5 Uncomplicated Ways to Gain Psychological Distance During Conflict (And Why You Should)

When you’re stuck on a problem or feeling angry, briefly distancing yourself psychologically from the current circumstances can give you emotional relief and actually help you solve the problem. Here are five simple and potent ways to gain psychological distance (and help others do the same) when you’re spinning your wheels in a conflict conversation.

Psychological distance is the mental distance you create by detaching from what you’re experiencing and stepping outside yourself in your mind’s eye. Psychological distancing has been shown to help with emotional self-regulation, decision making, and problem solving, all key factors in conflict resolution.

I’ve written about the merits of physical distance for calming down, more creativity, and better problem solving. But what if the circumstances make it difficult to physically relocate or move around?

Then it’s time to exercise your mind’s eye instead of your legs. Mental imagery can offer you powerful relief and results by influencing your perception. Here are five easy-to-remember mental devices to help you in a pinch:

1. Mentally watch yourself from a distance.

The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation, says aggression and anger researcher Brad Bushman, is what feels most natural: Focus on hurt and angry feelings. This “self-immersive” behavior will often only fan the flames of aggression.

To reduce aggression and anger, mentally step outside yourself and watch yourself as if from a distance, like a fly on the wall might.

This kind of psychological distancing is spatial — in your mind’s eye, you are increasing the space between the mental you and the physical you.

2. Lean back. Really.

When a task is difficult, note researchers Manoj Thomas and Claire Tsai, people tend to “mentally zoom in” on the problem in order to gain a closer perspective on the task. But this mental zooming can end up making some problems harder to sort out because close psychological distance can also increase negative feelings.

In their research, Thomas and Tsai discovered that physically leaning back in a seat can make certain tasks less difficult. Leaning back helps increase psychological distance from the difficulty in front of you.

This kind of psychological distancing is also spatial — in your mind’s eye, you are increasing the space between you and the problem.

3. Picture the scene or person moving away from you.

If you’re seated next to an annoying individual at a party, point out researchers Joshua Davis, James Gross, and Kevin Ochsner, you can reduce the emotional impact on you by simply getting up and moving to a seat further away.

Their research suggests you can achieve a similar result simply by imagining the stimulus to be moving away from you. In the research, negative scenes generally elicited less negative response and lower levels of arousal when imagined moving away from participants and shrinking.

The key here is explicitly imagining movement away from you. Imagine whatever is stimulating your angst moving off into the distance, shrinking as it gets further away.

This kind of psychological distancing is social — in your mind’s eye, you are increasing the distance between them and you.

4. Picture the decision from the perspective of your future self.

Long a tool in the negotiator’s toolbox, this form of psychological distancing causes you to switch your frame of reference from the current experience to a future you can imagine.

If your current self is tired, overwhelmed, or caught in the figurative weeds during negotiations — or you’re simply unsure if the agreement you’re considering is right for you — imagine your future self looking back at the decision.

Researchers Marlone Henderson, Yaacov Trope, and Peter Carnevale concluded that negotiators taking this kind of perspective were more willing to accept concessions on low-priority issues and less interested in concessions on high-priority issues. It’s thought that time-related psychological distance helps negotiators consider agreement in a more structured manner and avoid the fragmentation that can come with piecemeal (one issue at a time) negotiation.

This kind of psychological distancing is temporal — in your mind’s eye, you are switching your frame of reference from what you’re experiencing now to what you can imagine.

5. Play the “as if game” in your head

“As if” is an old theatrical improv exercise where you respond to a stimulus as if you are something else than what you currently are. In my article about the “as if” exercise, I walk you through some sample uses for this very quick mental game.

This kind of psychological distancing is hypothetical — in your mind’s eye, you are switching your frame of reference from your current state to the state you’d like to be in.

So, remember the four kinds of psychological distancing and use them to help yourself in conflict situations:

  1. Spatial — creating distance by picturing a change in physical location or position
  2. Social — creating distance by picturing a wider gap between yourself and others
  3. Temporal — creating distance by picturing a change in time from present to future (or past)
  4. Hypothetical — creating distance by imagining something different than what you’re experiencing

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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