Conflict is an everyday feature of our lives. It ranges from full blown arguments to unexpressed feelings of anger, resentment or unhappiness. We frequently feel the other person in the equation is entirely to blame for the way they make us feel. But in truth, no one can make us feel anything. In this article, we look at how our own experiences change the way we interact with people. And it may surprise you to learn that the way you feel has a profound effect on the situation.



Does this situation sound familiar?


Think of someone who you find a bit difficult. It maybe a work colleague, a parent, a sibling or a friend. Perhaps you find that they are defensive or argumentative, or spiteful and conversations always feel like conflict. Do you come away from the conversation feeling angry or irritated? You may think to yourself, ‘They’re always like that. I don’t know what their problem is!’ 

You may think that them being difficult, defensive of argumentative is solely down to their personality. However, this is not the case. What we often don’t take into account is how much we are bringing to the encounter. Now, this isn’t to say that the conflict is all your fault so don’t just stop reading! But it is a fact that our actions, our body language and our words are a big part of how an interaction plays out. To understand what is happening it’s necessary to break it down into four elements. 

  • Their past experiences with you and other people 
  • Your past experiences with them and other people 
  • Your expectation of the encounter 
  • Their expectation of the encounter.

So let’s explore that a bit further. 



Experiences change our behaviour


The emotional part of our brain works tirelessly to keep us safe, physically and emotionally. It will store away patterns of things that have hurt us in order to recognise them and prepare us to avoid them if we see them in the future. However, you may not be aware that you are holding these patterns or that our behaviour is being affected by them. 

For instance, it could be that you have a bad reaction to the way a particular person speaks to you. It might be that you were hurt in a past conflict and your emotional brain is remembering that. However, it also might be that the memory your emotional brain is trying to protect you from relates to a different person altogether, but it has recognised a tone of voice or a feeling of being in the wrong, or their body language. 

You also have no way of knowing what experiences the other person has had that may be having an affect on their interactions with you. For example, your mum always criticises you. Her mum always criticised her and she is unconsciously following the same pattern with you. You react badly to the criticism, understandably. But every time she does it the emotions it brings us are not just related to that conversation. Our brain recognises the previous pattern and triggers all the emotions we felt from before. This means that you only have to perceive the mildest criticism to have a strong reaction to what she’s saying.



Our expectations change our behaviour


If our brain recognises a pattern where we’ve been hurt before, it creates an expectation in us to help us deal with the perceived incoming threat. How many times have you pre-rehearsed an exchange in your mind ahead of the actual encounter? Probably countless times. 

For example, you know from experience that Mark in Accounts is quite awkward. He always make you feel as if you are in the wrong or don’t know what you’re talking about. You kind of dread going to see him, and in your head you’re already thinking, ‘If he says this, I’m going to tell him that’. You do this just so you’re prepared. But what that thought process does is prepare you for battle. So you are already primed for an argument. 

You don’t say anything but non-verbal cues are given that convey that you are on the defensive. This makes Mark more awkward, since you are sending him aggressive signals. And Mark might wonder why you’re so spiky and defensive! It could be that you are basing your experience on him from one particular day. Perhaps this day you might have been feeling a bit vulnerable or he may have been having a bad day (or both!). Since then every interaction with him feels like conflict, and you decide quite firmly that Mark hates you. But it is quite likely that you have reacted defensively ever since and he is responding to that.



Picture the conflict differently


Imagine that all of your experiences affect the way that you perceive an encounter in two ways. It frames how you will interpret what the other person is saying. It also dictates your expectations of the next encounter. All of that is just coming from your side. 

Imagine now that the other person is doing exactly the same. They will interpret what you say based on their previous experiences and will have an pre-formed expectation of your conversation. 

Scientists have never agreed on what proportion of communication is nonverbal, but suffice to say that of words, tone of voice and body language, it appears that the actual words spoken are the least important. It’s these unconscious signals that are being sent when you are either pattern matching to past experiences or priming yourself for an argument. 



How can this help me resolve conflict?


By understanding the following points, we can approach what is commonly a difficult encounter and change the dynamics completely. 

These are the 4 key points to bear in mind:

  • The way the other person is acting is likely to have nothing to do with you at all.
  • The way you react to them may be nothing to do with them, it may have been someone else who is responsible for the way you are feeling and unconsciously acting.
  • That rehearsing arguments based on your experiences or expectations will nearly always lead to arguments. 
  • That the other person may have rehearsed an argument, based on previous experiences and expectations and that is the reason for their defensiveness 

In this way we can we can understand the other person and ourselves better. And with understanding comes forgiveness. Additionally, it can break the cycle of conflict once and for all. 

I really hope you’ve found this information about resolving conflict helpful. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.

With very best wishes


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