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It’s Not What You Think

“Why is it so hard to change my reaction in conflict?” That’s such a great question, and one a coaching client, Mary, asked at the start of our work together.

Mary is bright, ambitious and highly successful. Yet when it came to highly charged situations at the office (and at home) she’d go quiet, give-in and acquiesce even when she didn’t want to.

She’s not alone.

When people want to approach conflict in a new way, they try to think about it differently. This isn’t bad, but the way you respond to conflict is governed by your whole system: mind, body and emotions – not just your cognitive brain.

Now, I’m not a scientist or a doctor so I’ll keep this basic. We have three brains.

We have a cognitive brain which is that executive function where we think, plan and learn. We have a limbic brain, which we share with mammals who nurture their young. It’s our emotional brain. Then we have our reptilian brain, which we share with reptiles, who eat their young! This is our fight, flight and freeze brain.

All these brains connect to your spine, which makes up your central nervous system. This central nervous system influences your emotions and your body. In a conflict situation, it’s not just your cognitive brain that responds – all of these brains and your entire body and emotional systems respond as well.

Your behavioral patterns in conflict developed when you were young, even before there was much cognitive function. For example, if your environment growing up had a lot of yelling, as a wee one, your cognitive brain wasn’t fully developed. You were responding to your environment through your limbic and reptilian brains – your body emotions and sensations.

There’s a saying in brain science, “what fires together, wires together,” meaning certain synapses that are triggered and “fire” wind up creating a circuit that is “wired together.” Then later in life similar stimulus causes the “wired together” circuit to go off in your brain causing a habitual reaction in your entire system.

This means when you run into conflict at the office (or at home) you respond emotionally the same way, your body reacts the same way, and you wind up saying or doing something similar.

So that’s a lot of sciency talk just to come back to the reason it’s so hard to change in conflict. That’s because it’s not just a cognitive function – it’s your whole system trying to change, which changes much slower.

That doesn’t mean you can’t change, but just understanding and learning about it is not enough.

So how do you change?


First, and foremost, you have to want to change. For many of us, this only happens if something starts to go wrong in our relationships. For instance, we get negative feedback at work, our spouse threatens divorce, or we have a difficult relationship with a child.

For me, CrisMarie, it was an internal sense of suffering and feeling trapped in the middle of conflict that drove me. I realized, like Mary, that by constantly avoiding it or giving in, I wasn’t living my life congruently or as fully as I wanted. I knew I had more horsepower that wasn’t being expressed.

Watcher Awareness

Second, you need to cultivate your ability to watch or observe yourself, really become aware of what you’re doing in the moment. So often we’re in it, like it’s running us. Then we get on the other side and wonder, what just happened?

A basic way to cultivate this awareness is to interrupt the process and ask– what’s happening for me right now? Ask yourself:

  • What am I thinking?

  • What am I feeling emotionally?

  • What do I feel in my body?

Another way to get information about your response is to ask for feedback. We all think we know what we’re doing, but we don’t. We have big blind spots. Asking for feedback may make you feel vulnerable, but if you want to learn it’s a fast track to growth.


Third, learning to change the way you react in conflict is very similar to learning to play an instrument like the piano or a sport like golf. You can’t just study a book and play well. You have to practice your scales and your putting - over and over and over again.

This is why in our leadership development workshops we lead you through challenging situations where as a participant you truly learn to experience your reactions, becoming aware of how you respond. We interrupt you and ask what are you noticing? How are you feeling? Can you think of another choice?

We also provide feedback. Then you get an opportunity to try something new and see how it goes.


If you have the motivation, the support of a good coach can help you cultivate the awareness, unravel what’s happening, try new things, and help you uncover new things as you practice.

BTW, my client, Mary, is kicking butt! She’s speaking up in those high-charged situations, saying what’s true for her. Her capacity to hold her ground has improved dramatically. She was even recently promoted!

We were on the phone last week and she said, “While the promotion is awesome, what’s really life-changing for me is how much more comfortable, confident and capable I feel both at work and at home. I feel like I’ve got more of myself back!”


Want to get your three brains working together so you feel more comfortable, confident and capable when conflict comes up in your relationships? Try out our coaching or leadership development programs.

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Coaches, Business Consultants, Speakers and Authors of The Beauty of Conflict

CrisMarie and Susan work leaders and teams, couples in business, and professional women.

They help turnaround dysfunctional teams into high performing, cohesive teams who trust each other, deal with differences directly, and have clarity and alignment on their business strategy so they create great results.

Check out their website: www.thriveinc.com. Connect with CrisMarie and Susan on LinkedIn. Watch their TEDx Talk: Conflict – Use It, Don’t Defuse It! Find your copy of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team's Competitive Advantage here.

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