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Dealing with the Physiological Effects of Conflict

Dealing with the Physiological Effects of Conflict

By: Ross Paterson

You have a crocodile brain.

You know that feeling.

Right after a high-stress confrontation, you are driving in your car and all of a sudden your brain is flooded with all these great ideas. “I should have said…”

The biggest obstacle to healthy human conflict is our body’s physiological response to stress. Basically, our body can’t tell the difference between a bear attack and dealing with the office jerk at work. When we sense the threat to our safety, our bodies turn on the adrenaline and cortisol and the front half of the brain shuts down. All you have left functioning is the amygdala (crocodile brain) and you are either going to bite your adversary… or run.

If you want to be the leader or family member who skillfully brings resolution to conflict, you must learn to overcome these physiological responses. Try these three steps the next time you get in the middle of a heated confrontation.

  • Deep breaths: At the first twinge of stress teach yourself to take deep breaths (3-4 seconds in through the nose, hold 3-4 seconds, 3-4 seconds out through the mouth).
  • Lower your voice: Think about the late-night radio DJ; soft, low, slow. Humans respond to mirroring, and your calm responses will help diffuse the situation.
  • Picture your happy place: This has to be a real spot in the world that you associate with peaceful, happy memories.


All three of these actions keep the whole brain engaged; helping you overcome the flood of cortisol and adrenaline that are trying to put you in crocodile mode. This can take a lifetime to master. So the next time you are going into a high-stress meeting, practice these techniques at your desk before the conversation heats up.

Remember the goal is not winning the conflict, but finding resolution. See previous blogs.