By Marina Piscolish, Ph.D.
For years, we, as a field, have been hard at work teaching crucial communication skills for managing conflict, solving problems, and navigating change. We’ve taught the five conflict styles to promote thoughtful engagement in conflict. We’ve preached the importance of being present and listening fully with an open mind and heart. We’ve shared methods of managing emotions and communicating in more effective ways so that we can be heard by others. We’ve encouraged finding common ground by focusing on underlying interests. However, in this time, when conflict is abundant in our workplaces, our social media feeds, and our dinner tables, these skills appear to be woefully under-used, even by those who teach them, including me.
There’s clearly something missing between acquiring the skills and applying them in everyday moments of stress, conflict, and change. My own bad behavior in stressful moments over these past few months (OK, maybe years) in response to a world in chaos and pain, sent me searching for a way to retain my sanity and more responsibly use my skills. My search led me to the study and practice of mindfulness.
I’ll admit, realizing that having conflict resolution skills does little to assure effective use of them left me discouraged at first, but as I’ve become more aware of the emerging brain science, it began to make sense. Our bodies react to conflict as a threat to our safety, much like coming face-to-face with a bear on a hike. To protect us, our amygdala (the oldest and most primitive part of our brain) takes over, producing cortisol and adrenaline to prepare us to fight, flight, or freeze. In doing so, it shuts downs the more evolved pre-frontal cortex, the areas of the brain where complex decision-making, critical and consequential thinking, and the ability to understand multiple perspectives reside. In other words, under stress, we predictably lose access to the skills that we most need to listen fully, speak clearly, and engage in conflict thoughtfully.
Let’s face it. We essentially ask people to take the moments when they feel least mindful and engage in the most mindful way. How then, can we help ourselves and others to build the superhuman abilities needed to accomplish this unnatural task? What can we bring to our training design, curriculum, coaching, and processes that can help people regulate in stressful moments of conflict, regain access to their prefrontal cortex, and show up more fully?
I believe it is as a simple as the Pause.
The Pause is a practical but powerful step that comes before actively engaging with others in a stressful, conflict situation. It’s a moment of mindful presence that is used to bring about emotion regulation, and connect your body, mind, and spirit before saying or doing anything.
What I’m advocating is a practical step anyone can try in any stressful situation. It involves three key elements: noticing, relaxing, and reflecting.
First, you notice what is happening in your body in that moment of rising stress or when recognizing conflict is at hand. Where are you holding stress: in your neck, chest, fists? What sensations do you feel; is it tight, warm, numb? Is your heart beating fast? Does your face feel flushed? Has your breathing become shallow? And having noticed, you cease engaging further in the conflict with others until you have gone inward and feel ready to emerge, more prepared.
Next, you intentionally relax those areas of your body where you are holding tension. Drop your shoulders, release your jaw, shake out your hands. Place your hand over your heart to feel it beat and remind yourself that you are safe, right now. Take a few deep breaths in and long, slow breaths out. Then, set your intentions. Beckon your better angels. Call forth compassion and wisdom. If you are inclined, pray!
Finally, slow down your thoughts so that you can see them more clearly. Get curious. Reflect on the messages running through your mind, perhaps through a RAIN reflection or guided meditation. Acknowledge the emotions you’re feeling, the rage, fear, disappointment, heartbreak, or all the above. Allow and accept them as valid, rather than pushing them away. Investigate each emotion and try to uncover the source. What are you believing? What unmet need explains that rage or fear? How might that need be met by you? By another? This final step offers the specific information needed to prepare yourself, to plan your approach, and to find the words that another needs to hear.
Taking the Pause in a moment of stress brings us back to ourselves and gives us access to everything we need to put crucial communication and problem-solving skills to work. The idea of the Pause isn’t a new one. It can be found in nearly any wisdom tradition, in the latest brain science, and in our fields best-practices. However, I believe that collectively we have given this critical internal work too little time and attention. People need a concrete way to put the Pause into action: a practical way to do the private work that prepares us to engage in conflict in the most responsive and creative way. By taking a Pause, if only for a moment, we can connect to our values and ethics, invite in wisdom, guidance and grace, practice empathy and compassion as we discern the right action and find the right words.
In three simple steps of noticing, relaxing and reflecting, we bring ourselves the calm and clarity needed to be kind, curious, and courageous in conflict. I believe that teaching people to do the Pause will close the gap between our best intentions and our actions.
Check out this video to hear more about The Pause (length: 3:30): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jNoT4Y3hi2c&t=15s
Join us Wednesday, October 21, 2021 3:30 PM to 5:30 PM for a virtual workshop titled The Pause – A Tool for Bringing Clarity and Courage to Conflict. Click here to register: https://sjquinney.utah.edu/event/the-pause-a-tool-for-bringing-clarity-and-courage-to-conflict/
Marina Piscolish, Ph.D., founder of MAPping Change, LLC, helps leaders, teams and multistakeholder groups co-create shared visions, solve problems, strengthen culture, and manage complex change. Marina is passionate about designing culturally responsive and trauma informed approaches that will lead to long-lasting, structural changes. Whether public speaking, training, coaching, or designing and facilitating collaborative systems, Marina’s goal is to bring mindfulness in and leave skills behind.
While based in Hawaii for over twenty years, Marina serves groups around the world. She founded the Conflict Resolution Program at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware and authored Reaching for Higher Ground: Creating Purpose-driven, Principled, and Powerful Groups (2009).