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The Brain Under Conflict

Butterflies in our stomachs, anxiety in our minds and bodies, sweaty palms and a calm look of excitement on our faces! These are the physiological reactions that we experience when starting a new job-specifically on the first day of the job! Our mindset is positive, always thinking, I will give it my all. I want to do well! I will do well! I will help others! This is certainly how I felt a decade ago when starting out my first job in organizational conflict management.

Any function in an organization that touches people impacts each one of us internally. As a Leader, Conflict Coach, Ombudsman, Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisor, Human Capital Specialist and an Equal Opportunity Specialist all functions that touch people, work with emotions, conflicts, and everyday people.

How we react to conflict impacts our health physically, mentally, and emotionally. While we are easily able to help others by being an outside, third, or neutral party, taking care of your health, body, and mind is vital to your “I CAN” attitude everyday!  As an organizational health specialist or an individual who works with people, it is difficult to sometimes take time to relate to the people and find the root cause of the problem. Understanding how the brain is impacted during conflict is vital to helping people find their path to conflict resolution.

Alina Grubnyak, UnsplashWhen we, folks who touch people, work with individuals who are experiencing conflict, whether it is with self, others, and tangibles, we are quick to find clarity and get to the root of the problem. The psychology of people is such that emotions will be impacted almost instantaneously. Emotions sit at the surface and appear first, specifically when a fight or flight conflict arises. The reaction in your brain resides in the amygdala, located near the hippocampus of the frontal temporal lobe in the brain. At the initial moment of conflict our brain cortisol levels release instantaneously, causing us to overreact in zero to sixty seconds. Anger builds up quickly while blood rushes to the brain. How many of you can feel the blood rising in your body or feel hot when angry? These are the physiological reactions when an individual is experiencing conflict. The reaction happens so quickly that the brain becomes stressed. When the brain is under stress, stress can last longer than expected and impacts the hippocampus reducing cognition resulting in brain fog. Brain fog refers to the inability to think rationally and usually occurring when in conflict. Overtime, anger, stress and other negative emotions, if not dealt with, will impact the ability to learn and remember new information. Memory loss becomes a norm!

There are two pathways to a reaction that occur in the amygdala: confront the entity (fight) or shutdown (flight). The reaction is rapid-initially, and we become startled immediately. It is only afterward that we digest the event. Recently, research has discovered that a message received in the thalamus is transferred directly to the amygdala, without routing through the cortex, causing a rapid reaction of brain’s natural system. The thalamus gland in our brain receives the emotional stimuli from a message. When I say our emotions sit at the surface, they are received in the sensory thalamus. Our reaction, the initial sting is felt and reaction results in the amygdala. The amygdala is hijacked, forcing us to become disoriented in a heated event. In the heat of the conflict, our neural pathways, located at the prefrontal cortex shuts down immediately, depriving us from intaking information in a coherent format, while establishing a perception of what the other individual said, and trapping ourselves in the “I’m right and you are wrong” mindset. 

When the brain is under conflict, the body is reacting. Both the brain and body are experiencing multiple emotions including anger, fear, hurt, disappointment, and many others. At this moment people excuse their feelings/reactions by blaming others, pointing fingers, while being angry at themselves for how they reacted. It is at this very moment that we must detach from our automatic responses and force ourselves to think of how our reactions impact others. Choosing not to react sometimes is the best reaction and promotes a positive behavior response.

Elijah O’Donnell, UnsplashOur thoughts and emotions do get the best of us. Our emotional reactions can be negative and at times VERY wrong. It is a natural reaction to get angry with someone and blame them for the hurt they made us feel. This initial sting that we feel when hurt, disappointed or fearful all stems from being attacked or treated negatively. As mammals, our bodies also react naturally to angry people and negative situations. In the workplace, we find this often to be true when we cannot get our way or insecurities in the workplace are occurring with our co-workers and superiors. The latter requires each of us to take a step back and think of what the potential impacts could be. Point in case: a supervisor flexing their power over an employee by yelling at the individual for a minor issue constantly; or an employee bullying another employee daily. Continuous negative behavior in a toxic workplace initially resides into the subconscious part of the brain. Self-doubt, self-blame, and physiological actions are a result of our subconscious thoughts that become automatic or conscious actions.  Feeling sad, depressed and low about oneself becomes the norm. We begin to see new people, issues and emotions with a glass half empty. Sometimes feeling low and sad goes unnoticed.

Our brains are construed of thought processes. How a thought comes to the mind is unknown. How thoughts are put together is also unknown. When we are angry and we say things that we don’t mean, regardless of initial intent, others are impacted negatively. This thought, automatic in nature just comes out! Point in case; when the car in front of you slams on their brakes and almost causes a wreck, your instincts take over, body muscles tense, blood flow increases, adrenaline surges and you may even verbally scream something reactively. This is an automatic, knee jerk reaction. We immediately blame the individual for being a poor driver without recognizing the multiple reasons why they may have slammed on their brakes in the first place. If we were to tap into the part of our brain that forces us to engage in cognitive thinking such as paying attention to all the activity around the conflicted situation, we would recognize that the fault could be ours for not seeing the bigger picture of the initial conflict. Failure to recognize all the pieces to a negative situation will cause an immediate and unnecessary reaction. It is vital to take a step back and think about what just happened, process it and then react accordingly. It is important to turn on your positive behavior thoughts:

  1. Take a breath and calm yourself: Walk away from the situation to calm down your emotions. Sometimes, being physically present (or in front of the individual/situation) can continue to stir our emotions negatively, to the point of escalation; resulting in verbal or physical abuse.
  2. Think it through: Tap into your second part of the brain and think about the situation. Take time to think through what you said, thought, how it may have come off, and what you could have done better. We cannot control the other person’s thoughts or actions. We can certainly control our reactions. If we de-escalate and walk away, it will diffuse the conflict immediately. Think it through. Fact: it takes approximately 48 to 72 hours to “get over” a conflict. It is at this point that we can actually realize what we did wrong in the conflict and do better the next time.
  3. Be better the next time: Conflict is inevitable. We can’t predict when it will happen. We can control how we deal with it. The next time you find yourself in a conflict, lower your voice, communicate with diplomacy, and think about how the other person is hearing you. Speak their language so that you can get your point across – CALMLY!
  4. Train yourself to be mindful: You don’t want to become the monster when in conflict, train yourself to control your emotions so that you are not adding undo stress to yourself or hurting others. Remember, only you can allow someone to hurt you. Practice self-discipline – so that you walk away knowing you did your best to resolve the conflict! Always use the part of the brain that requires you to think and not act in an automatic and reactive thinking, but rather process the situation first.

  5. Seek a Conflict Coach: Seeing a conflict coach is just as important as drinking your daily doses of water. Conflict coaching can help decipher emotions potentially caused by brain fog or underlying emotional turmoil while helping you get to the root of the issue. Every day conflict on the job can result in undo stress on your mind and body creating an unhealthy work atmosphere for you and your co-workers. Don’t lose your passion for what you do! You are important to the success of the team. A Conflict Coach can recommend strategies on how to resolve issues providing constructive self-improvement processes every step of the way!

As a Conflict Coach, I have worked with many people dealing with thousands of differing conflicted situations. Discover how a conflict coach can help you the next time you have an issue, whether it is work related or personal. Together we will find a solution! Let a conflict coach help you to retain your “I CAN” on the job every day! 


Bina Patel

Bina Patel PhD is the Founder & CEO of Bina Consulting LLC. Dr. Patel is a distinguished conflict resolution practitioner who provides an informal and confidential forum organizations, families, and individuals seeking to mitigate conflict. Her work focuses on coaching and mentoring children, adults and employees on making conflict management a… MORE >

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