By Taylor Rush, PhD
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Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Based on these words, nature may have given me a second-rate intelligence. I often find myself in conflict-management situations where I need to thoughtfully consider my perspective along with opposing opinions. However, I am painfully aware that my limbic system and prefrontal cortex often go a bit haywire. My heart races, blood rushes to my head and my jaw tenses. I feel vulnerable and nervous. I automatically start thinking of my defense, why the other person is wrong, or my mind goes completely blank. Historically, this would not lead to a productive end.
Since beginning my mindfulness practice 10 years ago, I notice I am better able to regulate my over-reactive sympathetic nervous system. I observe my physical, emotional and cognitive reactions (they have not miraculously disappeared), but they no longer short-circuit my brain. I am able to opt for a more adaptive response to the situation.
The literature supports my experience. Mindfulness skills have been shown to help with conflict management by:
- Decreasing self-centered focus, allowing for more collaborative dialogue.
- Breaking the vicious cycle of automatic thoughts/feelings/behaviors that contribute to unproductive conversations.
- Increasing emotional awareness of self and others, which promotes connection and understanding.
- Strengthening attention and non-judgmental awareness, which can foster flexible and innovative problem-solving.
Below are some practical tips for applying mindfulness skills for conflict management:
- Set intentions. What do you want to be discussed during this interaction? What do you want to learn from the other person? What do you want to happen as a result of this conversation? Set your intentions early and check in along to way to keep the conversation on point.
- Stay present to the situation. Try to keep assumptions at bay and ask open-ended questions to better understand the other person’s perspective and experiences.
- Stay aware of your inner reactions. Disrupt the automatic feedback loop between your body and your thoughts. Acknowledge distressing or judgmental thoughts and feelings without reacting to them. Then check them against the facts of the situation.
- Take one good breath before responding. A brief pause can mean all the difference between opting for a thoughtful response or knee-jerk reaction.
- Use reflective statements. This is a tried and true strategy for staying present. It allows you to fully concentrate on what the other person is saying (rather than form your rebuttal) and shows the other person you have an interest in what they are actually saying. This will make them more likely to reciprocate!
- Remember, it’s not all about you. The ultimate objective is that both parties are heard and find the conversation beneficial. Try to actively take the other person’s perspective and cultivate compassion (even if you fundamentally do not agree with their position). This makes conflict escalation much less likely.
- Investigate afterward. What do you feel now that the conversation is over? What was the overall tone of the conversation? Do you feel like you understand the other person’s perspective? Do they understand yours? Will this require further conversation or has the issue been resolved? Asking these questions will help you to hone your practice for the future.
So, the next time you find yourself facing a conflict management opportunity, consider slowing down, noticing your automatic reactions, and try using one or two of the above tips. While nature may have given some of us “second-rate” intelligence, mindfulness can help give us a raise!