Getting over our bodily reaction to the c word


July 30th, 2015

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conflictConflict is a strong word, I agree. When I ask people to name words they associate with it, most have negative connotations: painful, unnecessary, time wasting, politics, family fights, right or wrong, win or lose. Occasionally more positive words emerge: possibility, creativity, essential. Sometimes my work boils down to helping people find ways to work constructively in conflict that should have been dealt with in the boardroom, or at least facilitated with the help of more senior staff. In my view, leaders must facilitate and face into conflict if they are to help people innovate, learn and harness opportunity quickly. I believe that such qualities emerge from working with the diversity, mess and wonder of everyone’s contribution; and in all that difference there will be some conflict.

When I introduce the topic to leaders some scrabble for a gentler sounding alternative, but total plurality and no disagreement is rarely possible or desirable in work. Meeting at the sharp edges of different views is essential to examine them and see if they are truly incompatible, misunderstood or, actually, all part of a solution. But here’s the key point for me. Even if the contest of ‘striking together’ (latin root of conflict) is not useful, our bodily and emotional response to anything even mildly to do with handling difference can trigger deep reactions in us, making it difficult to handle.

So how does one move through conflict to harness the best of peoples’ differences? Lots has been offered on this over the years, for example: Patrick Lencioni’s ideas on team dynamics; Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication; David Kantor, Peter Garrett, Bill Isaacs and others’ work on dialogue and the related work of Otto Scharmer on Theory U. And, going further back, psychology helps us understand our sources of and aversions to conflict. These are all useful in the cognitive, emotional and even spiritual domains, but there is less guidance on the role that our body plays in conflict (with notable exceptions, like Amanda Ridings’ book, Pause for Breath). And this is a big miss, because our body has a huge impact upon our ability to handle conflict, for good or ill.

This is not just about body language, although that is part of it. We sense within seconds when someone sees things differently to us, before they verbalise anything: the narrowing of the eyes, a tightening across the chest and shoulders, folding of arms, a contortion in the face or tightening of the jaw, a shrinking away into their chair. We are each different in our body responses, but it’s always there, albeit sometimes less acute or better disguised. There are two key points about this body response, beyond the obvious one that non-verbals are a rich and powerful channel of communication which we need to manage.

The first concerns a feedback loop. When our body responds to an incoming possibility of conflict as described above, we raise the level of the hormone cortisol in our blood. In earlier times when we needed the fight/flight mechanism, this was very useful. These days, the threat is rarely a truly existential one, yet the proverbial sledgehammer that is cortisol obliterates our ability to stay in connection with the other, remain open to their message and speak our own truth clearly. Our body response deeply affects how we think and act and vice versa.

A second point is equally crucial. If we catch our body response immediately and adjust physically, we can head off the prehistoric response, perceive more accurately and work with the difference for what it is: often just an important albeit uncomfortable different perspective. If we uplift our posture from the base of our spine, breath more deeply, open up across our shoulders and soften our muscle tone on the out breath, we can avoid the cortisol spike and keep our attention focused in the interaction. This takes practise and self-awareness, but the practice is simple and powerful.

First IQ – intelligence quotient – was defined. Then EQ – emotional intelligence. What I write about here is a further level of development available to us all which can help us work with the difference we all bring, and on numerous other professional and personal challenges too. You could call it body intelligence – no doubt someone will soon coin the term BQ. Anyway, you may want to take a look.


Further reading

  1. Huffington, C. et al. 2007. Working Below the Surface – the emotional life of contemporary organisations.
  2. Isaacs, W. 1999 Dialogue – The Art of Thinking Together.
  3. Kantor, D. Reading the Room. 2006
  4. Lencioni, P. 2002 The Five Dysfunctions of Team.
  5. Palmer, W. and Crawford, J. 2013. Leadership Embodiment – How the way we sit and stand can change the way we think and speak.
  6. Ridings, A. 2012. Pause for Breath – bringing the practices of mindfulness and dialogue to leadership conversations.
  7. Rosenberg, M. B. 2003 Nonviolent communication – a language of life.
  8. Scharmer, O. 2009 Theory U – leading from the future as it emerges.
  9. Stewart, I. and Joines, V. 2009 TA Today – A new introduction to Transactional Analysis.