by Doug Noll
Ever thought about the choices you have in a conflict? Most of the time, if people think about it, they come up with freeze, flee, or fight—the primal reactions to fear generated in a portion of the brain known as the amygdyla. One of the secrets to living with grace and ease is recognizing that we have choices about how to respond to the conflicts we face in our lives.
Let me give you an example. Today, I wrote a letter responding to an inquiry about my prison project (www.prisonofpeace.org). I e-mailed the draft to my partner and colleague, asking that she accept the letter unless she found a major mistake. I did this because, although I respect and appreciate her dearly, she is sometimes a micro manager. I hate to be micromanaged. What I did not want was a bunch of nitpicky changes to a routine letter. Sure enough, 30 minutes later, my colleague replied back with a bunch of nitpicky changes. I went ballistic.
Now, I knew I had a conflict, and I knew I was triggered. In fact, I was pissed off. What were my choices? I could have accepted the changes and remained pissed off. I could have told my colleague to stuff it. I could've told her what I thought of her and her micromanaging. I could have told her that I was triggered and why. I could have ignored her and sent the letter as I wrote it unchanged. By simply listing my choices, any of which could have been the right choice, I was able to be more conscious about the conflict.
I decided to e-mail her back rather than call her because I didn't want to make this into any bigger deal than it already was. And, I was mad. My response first said that I understood the changes she was suggesting, then stated that I was very frustrated because I did not want any major changes to a routine letter. I told her she could make any changes she wanted and send the letter back. One minute after hitting the send, my cell phone rang.
I answered, “I am really pissed off.”
“Yep, I get that. That’s why I am calling,” she said.
“You really triggered me on this one,” I said.
“Your response really triggered me,” she said.
I laughed, “Well, there you go. We are both triggered.”
She went on to justify her changes as minimal, not understanding immediately that it was the fact that the changes were minimal was what got me annoyed. After we talked through the changes, she realized that I had been thoughtful about the letter and that her corrections were unnecessary. I pointed out to her that that was exactly the kind of nitpicky behavior that drove me crazy.
The light bulb went on for her. “I get it. I am so sorry. I will try to be more intentional and thoughtful with you. I can see that you're going to teach me how to let go,” she said.
“I forgive you,” I said. And that was the end of the conflict.
In this case, confronting the conflict by recognizing my own trigger led to a slightly deeper understanding between the two of us.
The secret to peace is not avoiding conflict. As a professional peacemaker, I get into conflict all the time. The secret to peace is recognizing that I have choices about how to respond to the conflict, choosing the best choice I can, and following my choice to its natural consequences. Conflict turns destructive when anger blunts your ability to make a good choice about your response. Make a good choice, and the conflict transforms peacefully. Make a reactive choice, and the conflict will likely escalate.
Next time you find yourself angry, frustrated, or disrespected, take a moment to list out as many choices as you can think of about how to respond. Select the choice that honors you and is the least inflammatory. Stay focused on your feelings and the feelings of the other person. Stay away from blaming, judging, or criticizing. This simple process will get you peacefully through the vast majority of conflict you face on your life's journey.
Doug Noll is an attorney that focuses on peacemaking and moderation rather than litigation. He is the author of several books and gives tips on negotiation, peacemaking, and conflict transformation.