Conflict and your brain – staying connected to your “smart brain”

by | Aug 31, 2018

Wired to connect

As human beings we are wired to connect with other humans. This is because we are social animals, and so too is our brain.

Research has shown that our brain is directly and deeply influenced by our social interaction with others. The 80 year study conducted by Harvard University concluded that “good relationships don’t just protect our bodies; they protect our brains.”. This means the converse is also true – bad relationships or social interactions (such as high levels of conflict) also affect our brains.

Wired to survive

As human beings we are also wired to survive. Our brain has a built-in “flight, fight or freeze” response which is designed to keep us alive.

When this response is triggered there is literally a shift in the blood flow in our brains. We may get sweaty palms and our heart beat speeds up, as well as other physical reactions. This response also stops us from accessing the rational and compassionate part of ourselves (known as our “smart brain”). The brain tells the body to get ready for action and this response happens at lightning speed.

This was helpful (indeed essential) in caveman days where there where many threats to our physical survival. However, in the modern age, we are not exposed to the same level or frequency of risks and physical threats. But here is the sting – our brain still responds this way when we feel socially threatened or when we are in conflict, which may not be the most helpful response to the situation.

Wired to respond

Essentially, the same part of our brain that responds when we are in physical danger, gets switched on when our psychological needs are not being met or we are in “social pain”. For example, we feel our values are being violated – such as feeling disrespected or unsafe. Or where we feel socially isolated or are worried about money or being rejected. Or when we are in a high conflict situation or under stress.

This great video from Brave explains how this response happens at physical and emotional level.

The impact of conflict on your brain

In these situations, we are operating in a state of high alert which is not conducive to making rational and well thought out decisions. This is because we are no longer accessing our executive functions in our brain.

This has a number of impacts on our ability to create, maintain and enhance our relationships, and to constructively resolve conflict. For example, we:

  • reduce our ability to effectively communicate
  • reduce our problem solving skills and capacity to work collaboratively
  • increase our tendency to block out relevant factual information
  • increase the likelihood we make wrong assumptions and

All of these are factors are then likely to escalate conflict and make it harder to resolve.

How to stay connected with your “smart brain”

So how do you stay connected, or regain connection, to your “smart brain” when you are in conflict or under stress? The good news is that there are few things you can do.

First, be mindful of your body and the way that it is reacting. Take some deep breaths. Then neutralise your posture, relax your shoulders and try opening your hands. Lowering your voice can also help steady your heart beat and make you feel calm.

Second, be mindful of how you are communicating. Focus on actively listening to the other person. This means focusing of what is being said rather than what you are going to say. Ask open questions to create a dialogue rather than a debate. And be ready to let things go rather than fighting it out.

Get in touch

The reality is that some situations may be too difficult to resolve on your own. This is where the skills and experience of an accredited mediator can help you to work things out using the robust process of mediation and techniques to keep you connected to your “smart brain”.

For a free and confidential discussion to talk about how mediation may help you address or resolve conflict in your organisation, please contact Emma Broomfield on:

Emma Broomfield Director Governance & Mediation

Emma Broomfield

Director - Governance and Mediation

  0421 180 881



Disclaimer: This publication is provided in good faith and is for general information purposes only. This publication does not constitute legal advice or other professonial advice, and must not be relied upon. You should seek legal or other professional advice in relation to matters arising out of the publication having regard to your circumstances and needs. No warranty or representation regarding the reliability, quality or accuracy of any information in this publication is given by Locale Consulting or the authors of the publication.

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