Understanding what triggers conflict illuminates how to de-escalate it.
Conflict is not a forgone conclusion. Even when people think and value opposing views. The challenge arises when two people, or groups, maintain a rigid stance. Like a still lake overtaken by algae, no growth can occur in such a mindset. It’s why one of the biggest fallacies (unsound logic that leads to an invalid argument) is centered in dualistic thinking (a belief in two opposing extremes), or more commonly known as either/or thinking. This post delves into the negative consequences inherent in dualistic thinking and how dialectical thinking (both/and thinking) can be used to improve negotiations, solve conflict, and incur better decision-making.
Kimberly Key s past division president of the American Counseling Association and author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle. She is Founder and Chief Empathy Officer of Encompass Work & Family, Keys to Evolution and InstantMotivator.com, where she focuses on unlocking barriers that block natural mental health.
Editor: Talha Khalid
First, it should be stated that not everyone is actually capable of seeing two opposing sides at the same time. In extreme cases, like Borderline Personality Disorder, a person suffers from splitting—where life is either Heaven or Hell. Friends and family are safe or threats. When a BPD person experiences a perceived threat or feels defensive their defenses go up and everything they see feels like a danger to their safety so they retaliate. Then, without complete understanding on the other person’s part, the BPD person may feel calmed and their wall comes down and they see everything with rose-colored glasses and may display over-elation and extreme love. This vacillation can look a lot like the Incredible Hulk shifting back into Bruce Banner and then back again without warning.
The majority of people, including the most evolved and well-balanced, can react in the same way if the conditions are perilous enough. Their reptilian brain may hijack their frontal lobe (the part of our brain that can experience both/and logic and delayed gratification) and before you know it, a primal growl comes out. If I am physically threatened or harmed, I will go into a defensive mode and my fight, flight or freeze response will take over.
Think about any time that you or one of your basic needs was attacked. It could be your physical body, your loved ones, your home, your security (think work), your food. Even the threat of a loved one leaving you could trigger a fight, flight or freeze response.
Consider how you reacted in various desperate scenarios. Did you attack back (fight)? Walk away, quit or leave (flight)? Or did you become withdrawn, shut down and emotionally numb (freeze)?
None of the responses are necessarily bad or better, they just demonstrate what can happen to each of us when we come from our more reptilian instinctual brain that does not think like our frontal lobe. We only see things in black and white, Heaven or Hell, right or wrong when we are emotionally hijacked and in our reptilian brain. We can’t help it because it’s coming from the part of the brain that’s designed to protect us. Knowing that we will see things from the eyes of our inner Hulk is key to solving conflict.
When I recognize that I may have a tendency to see things as either/or when my reptilian brain is triggered—you’re either for me or against me; I’m either right or wrong; this theory or research is either right or wrong; this political view is either right or wrong; you are going to care for me or hurt me; I’m either safe or I’m in danger; I’m either accepted or I’m rejected—I can pause and re-process what I believe and attempt to re-experience through my frontal lobe with a both/and lens.
Once I re-view my defensive belief or just general false assumption I inherited as part of cultural bias, I can now see and hold two opposing views at the same time. This means I can now see where you too are defensive and how you might be viewing me as a threat. I can see how both of us are both right and wrong. I can see how many theories and research have merit even if I’m biased toward one. I can see past a political view and understand there’s truth in multiple viewpoints. I can see how I can be simultaneously in danger and yet safe. I can sit with being rejected while knowing I’m also accepted.
Once I recognize the both/and, I can also re-experience how the other person or group may be reacting from their own defensive reptilian brain and not take it as personally. More important, if I need to negotiate with them or provide some kind of customer service, I can work that much harder to start with empathy and reassure them and present ideas, suggestions and solutions in ways that do not trigger their defenses.
For instance, if I need to evict someone from my rental property because they keep harming my property—I know that I will probably already feel defensive and may inadvertently exacerbate the situation by becoming hulk-ish and intimidating them into leaving. This happens all of the time in business and is actually suggested and rewarded.
An alternative would be to sit with them and listen to their needs and situation. Is there property damage because of a domestic violence situation and can I help offer a little more empathy with some resources along with the eviction notice (if I feel I still need to proceed with an eviction). Is there vandalism from elsewhere that requires some kind of investigation? Are the renters just young and unaware of what they need to do to take care of property? Can we discuss ways that this can be practice for eventually owning and caring for their own home?
They still may need to be evicted and I may need to take legal recourse, yet a new mutually beneficial solution can possibly present itself if I can pause and empathize with and fully hear them first.
The same is true when discussing religion, politics, and anything else with anyone. I can listen to someone that could say things I completely disagree with without taking it on as a threat to my safety. I can even try to see the pearl in their view. I don’t even need to share how my view differs unless they ask and genuinely want to know. If so, I can use words that feel non-threatening to them. If defenses get triggered, maybe we can talk about where and how we feel threatened. Or we can lovingly agree to disagree. The biggest thing is that I’m less likely to take it personally by recognizing that both of us may be reacting from a primal brain. I can even walk way and laugh at myself and the situation and learn something new from it.
Not all conflict may be solved, yet not all conflict is a foregone conclusion. Knowing that people can respond from a defensive either/or stance can alert me to ways of communicating in ways that disarms defenses and allows us to mutually share from our higher brain. Activating our frontal lobe while viewing things from a both/and perspective will increase connection, safety, trust, and love—enabling better communication, negotiations, and decision-making.