Conflict, Stress and Smart Watches

Conflict. It’s a horrible word isn’t it? It fills us with dread and despair, causes our backs to stiffen, our jaws to clench and our foreheads to start perspiring.

The worst thing, well in my opinion anyway, about conflict is the fact that it can often come out of nowhere. You’re having a regular, cheerful enough conversation, perhaps even a mundane chat, and then suddenly, wham! You’re fighting.

Now there are many reasons that conflict can start – some are genuine and justifiable, some are quite frankly the fruit of poor communications skills, but I don’t have time to discuss that right now. Whatever the reason you find yourself heading into The Danger Zone, Fight Club (verbal only l I hope), Pistols at Dawn or whatever other phrase you want to use to describe conflict – the reality is that most of us want to avoid it if possible.

And I am going to give you one sneaky, cheeky little tip that can help you identify when you are heading into trouble and how to de-escalate it before it blows up in your face. But first, here are a few basic physiological facts you need to know first.

Your body has a built-in alarm system whose job it is to help you identify danger or threat and then send signals to various parts of your body to trigger a response that will send you into that well-known, but hugely mis-understood Fight or Flight response. This process is known as Diffuse Physiological Arousal (DPA as coined by the Gottman Institute).

When your body goes into DPA there are a number of specific things that happen within your body.

  • Your heart rate speeds up
  • The blood flow to your gut and kidneys slows
  • Adrenaline starts to pump
  • Increased production of cortisol (a stress hormone)
  • Increased activity in the Amygdala (the place where all your emotions are charged)
  • Decreased activity in the frontal lobe (the place where reasoning, logic and judgment preside)

It’s an interesting list of symptoms right? And can you see where I am going with this?

When we perceive danger, in the form or conflict, our bodies have a physiological response that is detrimental and, to be quite blunt, incredibly unhelpful if our goal is to settle the discussion amicably, calmly and harmoniously.

Now this is a very basic lesson in what happens in your body in the midst of perceived danger or conflict, but you can see that when you understand what is going on internally it can be a great motivation for helping you manage what could be about to happen externally.

So what do you do to try and reduce the conflict and maintain a calm, reasoned and productive conversation, here are four tips.

  1. Pay attention to the signals your body is giving you.

Are your palms sweating, or is your skin prickling? Perhaps your eyes are filling with tears, or your chest feels tight and your breathing is more rapid? Or perhaps you feel this driving desire to say something harsh, or not say anything at all and just storm out? All of these are signals to you that you are rapidly entering into The Danger Zone, at which point avoiding a full blown explosion is increasingly difficult.

  1. If in doubt – check your heart rate monitor!

Research tells us that when our heart rate increases above 100bpm we begin to see the To-Do list of physiological response begin to kick in, and this process is known as Flooding (Gottman Institute). When Flooding begins a person’s mindset changes from one of open, selfless, benevolence, to one of self-preservation. You believe that you must defend and protect yourself, and this usually comes in the form of aggression (unkind or accusatory words) or in the form of escapism (stonewalling or physically walking away). Neither of which is helpful.

  1. Step Away

If your heart rate and your body is signaling problems – step away from the situation. Propose that you take a break, stretch your legs and make a cup of tea, just do something that removes you physically from the situation. This ‘break’ should be at least 20 minutes long. You need a minimum of 20 minutes in order for your body to reset. But you need to come back to the topic of discussion within 24 hours. Anything longer than 24 hours means you are avoiding, or run the risk of avoiding, dealing with the situation. This results in a psychological belief that the issue is bigger and more powerful than it really is.

  1. Change your Thoughts

Whilst you take a break – change your thoughts. Do not do the thing that we all want to do and instinctively do in these situations of plotting our comeback!

Be honest; we all do it, we re-play the conversation in our head and justify our comments and plan our smart and victorious retorts. The problem with this line of thinking is that whilst it feels incredibly satisfying, it is in fact incredibly damaging as it continues to increase the To Do list of symptoms which simply increases your stress levels. What you need to do is find something different to think about. Change the record in your head and re-direct your attention so that your body can begin to de-escalate and reset itself into a mode in which it will be able to clearly and calmly enter back into a discussion.

Conflict increases stress and stress increases the likelihood of conflict, it’s a downward spiral – so if you don’t have a smart watch, it might be time to consider getting yourself one.