You know that uncomfortable feeling. 

Maybe it’s an unhappy client who is going to contest an invoice.

Or a board member who believes your operation is falling short and wants to shake things up. 

Or an employee who thinks she should have been promoted, and wasn’t.

You’re gearing up for a conflict, and so are they. 

Here’s what’s going on in everyone’s brain—and how you can press the reset button to create a better outcome.

You’ve All Lost Your Minds

When you’re not under stress, your moral compass works well. This is in the insula, which is in your human brain—the seat of your higher thinking and planning. It directs you toward these assessments: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity.

But when you feel threatened, the amygdala—in your survival brain—takes over. It senses your overload. 

You have more than 100 billion neurons in your brain, and each one can receive 10,000 messages a second. Some of those are from the outside world, and others are the voices inside your head. Some of these are memories and your fears of seeing negative things happen again. (Remember: your brain can’t tell the difference between an actual and a perceived threat.)

So the amygdala shuts down your human and emotional brains and leaves you with three options: fight, flight or freeze. None of these is a good strategy for a tough talk. And chances are good that the other person’s brain is going through something similar. (Want to know more? See The Search for Intelligent Life—Inside Your Head.) 

Here’s how to move your brain—and those around you—from conflict to cooperation.

#1: Pay Attention to Your Body

Know where stress and overwhelm show up in your body. Is it a tight throat? Queasy stomach? Tension between your shoulder blades? You can’t change something when you don’t know it’s going on (because your amygdala shut down your ability to notice this)—or you’re trying to convince yourself that “everything is fine.”

Breathe deeply to soothe yourself. Do this by breathing in (five counts, for example), holding your breath (five counts) and letting it out (five counts).

#2: Take a Momentary Break

You want to start changing the combative energy (of fight). 

This could be as simple as you taking a drink of water, suggesting everyone take a short break, or inviting everyone to stand up or take a few deep breaths. Drinking water and deep breathing oxygenates your brain, and physical movement helps reset the balance between people’s left and right brains.

#3: Reach Out to Build Trust

When people trust you, their brains create a neurotransmitter called oxytocin. (Here’s more on that: Are You Creating Oxytocin?) You can do a few things to help jumpstart this. Pick what makes the most sense in your situation:

  • Ask people to envision how a solution to this problem could look and then tell you about it
  • Share stories about how you have cooperated with others in similar situations and invite them to do the same
  • Make sure you’re sitting next to people, or at a round table, rather than across from them at your desk
  • Gently touch their arm in conversation
  • Provide foods that are known oxytocin boosters, including chocolate, cheese, nuts, olives and avocados (that’s why every collaborative negotiation has food at the table)

Conflict is inevitable whenever there’s more than one person involved. (Maybe you’re like me: and you can feel conflict all on your own, without anyone else around!) Know how to calm yourself first, and then start connecting with other people. Turn a confrontation into an opportunity to improve everyone’s work life.

Need other ideas on how to make conflict productive? Let’s talk.