11 posts categorized "Emotional Management"

July 17, 2015

Why are some - but not all - relationships challenging?


"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." 
Carl Jung

When relationships challenge us, it is stressful. 

It does get dramatic. 

We do lose our sanity. 

And we do wonder about the meaning of it all.

Physically we experience the sensations of tension, numbness, headaches, stomach ache, pain, stress, fatigue and illness. 

Emotionally our landscape includes drama, manipulation and conflict. Negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, contempt, confusion, disgust, depression, fear, jealousy, worry and sadness are common. 

Mentally things aren’t better. We experience sense making challenges and misunderstandings. The temptation to narrate a right-wrong victim story, be judgmental and have punitive thoughts predominates. 

And we may even lose the plot, questioning life's ultimate meaning and purpose. 

But that is really just HOW relationships are challenging.

What about the WHY! 

Why are relationships challenging?

First, a relationship is challenging because of one, or a combination of three things: YOU, the OTHER and the CONTEXT!

Second, you and the other, as humans, have limitations that can create challenges.

For one, we are far more emotional than we really care to admit. Another is that our memories are not that reliable and we remember things differently without deceptive intentions. For those that try to do too much at the same time, it is now clear that neither woman nor men can really multitask. And if that’s not enough- the placebo affect confirms just how often expectation creates our reality! There is a reason we talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!

Third, most of us lack awareness of our own challenging behaviors or attitudes. Without awareness change is unlikely and even when we are aware, we are oftennot motivated to change.

For those that are aware and are motivated, there may be capacity challenges that make it impossible.

But if we or the other can overcome these obstacles, then the focus of the challenge turns to skills. Specifically, the development of emotionally resonant relationship management skills. 

To navigate the reality of your challenges you need to be able to listen with empathy, express yourself clearly, give and receive feedback openly without defensiveness, assert collaboratively (and sometimes say NO), resolve differences fairly and at times to forgive authentically.

And what this confirms is that there is a lot that you can do yourself first, before you consider the other or indeed the context.

Jung reminds us our challenges can become our opportunities for insight, change and growth.

As we understand ourselves better, we understand others better too. 

If you are tired of being stuck in relationships that are stressful, dramatic, confusing and depressing and are interested in transforming your challenges into opportunities please get on the wait list for the next time  the six week online course Challenging Workplace Relationships runs. 

March 18, 2015

Kind AND Direct

By Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D.
[email protected]
© 2014 Maria Simpson

There’s an old saying that if you aren’t getting the answers you want, then ask different questions. As managers or coaches we sometimes want to provide answers and solve problems before we have asked enough of the right questions to get important information and identify real problems, so we provide answers to the wrong questions and solutions to the wrong problems. No the most efficient or effective process.
Questions generally fall into one of three categories -- curious, clarifying and challenging – and the first two will get the most important information. The curious question asks for new information and may not have any agenda in mind at all. I ask curious questions when I’m interviewing people. The clarifying question makes the current information clearer and assures that all parties understand information in the same way. Otherwise, a conflict will arise and someone finally has to say, “Oh, that’s what you meant. I didn’t get that at all” before it can be resolved. The challenging question is just what it describes—a challenge to what you have said or to you as a person. It challenges not only fact but integrity and honesty. It can feel as if the person is deliberately trying to trick you into saying something you don't mean and can cause immense stress.
Sometimes the difficulty for us is not in the question itself but in how to ask it, what words to use, especially if we are angry, frustrated, under pressure, or afraid of the answer.
When I have that difficulty I call my good friend and mediator par excellence L. Therese White who always finds the best way to say the most difficult things using her principle of “kind and direct.” (www.thereswhite.com) Therese believes that there is just no reason to be unkind when saying difficult things unless your goal is to hurt someone. In fact, she suggests, “maybe the most difficult things need the most kindness to say.”

To identify ways to be helpful as a coach or manager ask clarifying questions about the person’s feelings about the job, Therese suggests:

  • The job description/procedures manual outlines what needs to be done. Are you willing to do that work?
  • What can I do to help you prepare for the next meeting/presentation?

Therese tries to find common ground by asking curious questions that will generate new information, such as:

  • Is there something about that person that you admire or value?
  • Would you be willing to say that to that person?
  • What is going on in the department that you both agree on?
  • What do you need from the other person that you don’t think you are getting now?

That last question can be tricky, so the phrase is “don’t think you are getting” instead of “are not getting.” Sometimes the person is actually getting the help or support needed but is thinking so negatively that the help or support can’t be recognized. Helping the person understand that at least some of that support is actually present can change a perspective and expand the conversation. 
Notice that challenging questions, questions that demand an answer or that make the person feel under attack and defensive, are avoided. For example, “Are you willing to do that work?” could just as easily have been stated, “Why aren’t you willing to do that work?” But that would be so much less effective. “Why aren’t you willing?” is an accusation made before the person has even expressed unwillingness. “Are you willing?” gives the person room to say no, and the coach room to ask what might be going on that creates that reluctance. The conversation is extended instead of cut short.
When people feel challenged they get defensive, they withdraw from the process and shut down, or they get argumentative and the dispute escalates. Using harsh language, language that implies something that isn’t true or hasn’t been discussed yet, is the quickest way to create an impasse instead of an open door.
Sometimes we have to ask the questions of ourselves. When I was complaining about a student’s very badly written paper to Ken Cloke, a wonderful mediator and mentor to both Therese and me, he asked me if there was anything good I could say about the second paper. “Well, I guess there are fewer technical errors than in the first one.” He said that was wonderful and asked me to build on what had improved, however small that was, to find a way to provide necessary feedback without condemning the student. Years later when a manager complained bitterly about a staff member, I asked him a version the same question. “That’s pretty harsh. Isn’t there anything good that can be said for this person?” He thought a minute and then said, “No.” I’d met the staff member and knew that couldn’t be true so I pressed him to think a bit harder. He finally said that she had been with the firm a long time and was loyal, a trait he valued, so there was something good to be said after all. It was a struggle for that manager to find a good quality, but finding it changed his perspective just enough so that he could be less harsh with the staff member.
Therese mentioned a conversation she had during a recent mediation where she explored the idea of kind and direct. “It was refreshing to see people get it and realize how everyone benefits when the choice is made to be ‘kind and direct’ instead of to be ‘kind ordirect.’” Surely we can make that choice much more often.

Have an absolutely wonderful, peaceful week. And be kind.


Maria Simpson, Ph.D.
[email protected]
© 2014 Maria Simpson

February 06, 2015

The importance of trust...

It is so trite. But it also is true. Trust is vital.

When we have the someone's trust and they feel confident in our abilities they will follow. Mediator's call this rapport. 

It was allows mediators to influence the process in a positive way the guide the participants toward resolution.

My friends Jarl and Steve picked up on the issue of trust in today's posting. As always it is full of wisdom:

Trust in Life


Only a very small percentage of the things you feel anxious about will actually turn out to be as bad as you fear. Poorly trained minds grab hold of scary thoughts and join them together like cars on a long train. The cumulative weight of these worries creates a momentum of it’s own. Habitually looking for what might go wrong eventually becomes a way of life that prevents you from noticing just how rarely things actually do go badly. The healthy alternative is to expect positive outcomes through actively developing your ability to…


Jarl and Steve


February 03, 2015

Different Drum...words of wisdom from Jarl and Steve!

From time I will post these pearls of wisdom from my friends Jarl and Steve. Their website is Gratitude 24/7 and part of their offerings are these daily quotes! Feel free to check out their website and subscribe yourself: gratitudetwentyfourseven.com

Here is today's post. It reminds me of my caution to meet participants in mediation where they are on the path of life. Wishing they were somewhere else will not help. As Jarl and Steve point out, we are all marching to the collective drum of our consciousness: 

"The world marches to the drum beat of the collective consciousness. You are on the continuum of its evolutionary movement. Every choice you make is informed (and limited) by what you’re able to perceive. Right and wrong are largely subjective. When others’ behavior appears to be misguided, remember that they are also taking action and making choices in alignment with their level of consciousness. You can’t rush evolution. If you want to experience a different (and in your opinion) better world, the best course of action is to model the behavior…"

You want to see.

Jarl and Steve

January 20, 2015

Helping people resolve conflict at work Part 2 of 2

Today is part 2 of the interview with John Ford about his book Peace at Work, showing organizations how to help their employees resolve their conflicts in an effective manner. 


At the end of your book, by applying what people have read, what is your hope and expectation for the results people can achieve? How will this make them more effective and their lives less stressful? 

I honestly believe that all HR professionals should be what I call conflict resolution competent which should include the ability resolve their own and others conflicts.

The new competency based model that SHRM is currently rolling out confirms this:
HR professionals “are expected to maintain productive interpersonal relationships and demonstrate aptitude to help others to do the same.” 

Very specifically, they are enjoined to mediate difficult situations and develop “a reputation as a neutral and approachable HR professional serving employees and the organization.”
"HR was always meant to be there for all (and not just management)."
As more and more HR professionals take on the mediator role and adopt the mindset of the mediator through the mediation stance, I believe that we will have more productive and happy workplaces.

When HR professionals have the aptitude for helping others to maintain productive interpersonal relationships through their balanced approachability, and have ways of navigating toxic waters, without harm, then conflict will be nipped in the bud and unnecessary destructive escalation will be prevented, and the energy of the conflict will be tapped into in a manner that supports respectful change and growth.

And then our organizations will be more effective and our lives will be less stressful.


January 05, 2015

Part One of Michael Toebe's Interview of me about my book...(thanks Michael)

Helping people resolve conflict at work Part 1 of 2

Professor and author John Ford
Where there are people and different perceptions, needs and personalities, strong disagreements are going to exist. Organizations, however, can show their employees the bridge to overcoming those challenges by better understanding conflict, how to effectively address it and helping them help themselves problem solve. 

And that's what John Ford does in his book Peace at Work: the HR Manager's Guide to Workplace Mediation.
Book Cover Front

Ford is a professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of California-Hastings, a professor at Creighton University's Werner Institute of Dispute Resolution and Negotiation and owner of John  Ford and Associates, which serves companies with mediation, negotiation and conflict resolution.

Today, in part 1 of an interview with Ford I talk to him about family inspiration, how we all first and most dominantly experience conflict psychologically, how to change toxic workplace relationships or cultures, and about overconfidence bias and the fear of anger.


April 27, 2010

The Role Of Intuition In Conflict Resolution

There is no question that to resolve a conflict beyond a superficial level, the emotional energy that accompanies any conflict must be addressed. And yet how we go about working with emotions in conflict situations is not that clear. Some encourage a focus on forgiveness, while others point out that until the nasty reality of revenge is addressed, forgiveness will be illusionary. Some say we need to understand the neurobiology of emotion to respond and others say that all we have to do is listen actively.

In this article, I want to explore the role of intuition and suggest that at the heart of the work of conflict resolution, whether by professional mediators, or HR managers is our ability to sense what to do or not do, intervention wise. To do this, we first need to develop our capacity to sense through feeling and images. Secondly, and at a cognitive level, we need to develop rules of thumbs or what some call ‘heuristics’ to guide us in our interventions.

The Role of Emotion in Conflict

Imagine an employee receives a performance review that she considers unfair. Her manager has rated her poorly for her ability to get along well with others. All her other scores are excellent. The interesting question is whether the thought that it was unfair came first, or the emotion. Some neuroscientists, like Damasio suggest that before there is conscious awareness of a feeling, there is a visceral emoting in the body and that therefore, even if just by a millisecond, emotions precede thought. In this situation, one can imagine a range of emotions including the initial surprise, anger both toward her manager and maybe even herself, disappointment, and fear about what this means for her job security with the company.

Beyond the emotion, there is the thought that it is unfair. This cognitive perception is based on the expectation that something different should have happened. In other words, that there is a gap between what is (the poor rating), and how she would like things to be (all excellent). And while the initial thought pattern may have been stimulated by the raw emotion, it doesn’t take long for most unexamined minds to perseverate and to generate ongoing justifications, explanations, arguments and demands that continue to feed the range of emotions. Except now, instead of the stimulus for the emotions being external, they are internal-her own thoughts that blame the other.

And then, most likely, there will be some form of behavior associated with the emotions and thoughts. When humans experience stress there is the well known fight or flight response. Thanks to the work of Shelly Taylor at UCLA, we now know that there is also the capacity to connect (to tend and befriend), especially in women, and where the fight and flight response is associated with the release of the hormone adrenalin, there is oxytocin, which some refer to as the trust hormone.

It is at this point, when she storms into your managers office, or goes over his/her head to HR that the first outward ‘fight’ signs of conflict emerge. Of course, if her tendency is to bottle things up, then it may be harder to detect, and yet the energy of the unresolved emotion will continue to haunt the relationship and may lead to indirect or passive aggressive behavior. Some may try a different tack, and seek to talk openly about the situation and seek to learn rather than to defend.

Resolving the conflict at the level of the behavior is the easiest but also the least durable. In essence, they both agree to conduct themselves in a civil and professional manner and to communicate about difficult issues. The issue of the actual performance review may also be settled at a substantive level. Depending on company policy the review may remain, be changed, or be linked to a performance improvement plan. However, until the emotions that informed that initial perception of unfairness are addressed, any resolution will be at best, superficial.

If this conflict surfaces, it will not only be her emotions, but also her managers. It is not just the employee that has feelings about this. Her manager may be outraged that she went to HR, and like her is concerned how this is going to impact his/her job security. This too must be addressed.

It is at this point that most have justice/revenge/payback etc on their minds, and through insular thought processes develop elaborate stories that cast each in the role of victim, while blame is used to distance themselves from responsibility. Only if the emotional energy can be addressed, the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation as the deepest form of conflict resolution may arise.

The challenge for conflict resolvers is to work with the emotional energy that holds the key to the lasting resolutions of the conflict. As I have already suggested, my experience is that to do so effectively we are operating intuitively.

Intuition as Emotional Intelligence

Intuition can be defined as knowing without knowing why. Unlike conscious thought, in which theory is applied to facts, intuition is sourced from the unconscious and without being fully aware of the underlying reasons or theory, we have a spontaneous sense of knowing that emerges primarily as a feeling, hunch, or sense that we consider strong enough to act upon. The interesting observation that even intuition must make it’s way to conscious awareness, points to the key factor that distinguishes the two: the source of the knowing.

To reference the now well known four quadrant emotional intelligence model of Goleman, intuition is a heightened sense of self and social awareness, that allows us to manage both ourselves and our interventions in a relational setting. Obviously, as conflict resolvers, being emotionally competent is a given, and our ability to master how and when we say or do what (intervene) when supporting a conflict resolution conversation is vital.

Developing Intuition

How then do we develop our intuition? Frances Vaughn in her early classic, Awakening Intuition, suggests an approach that allows our whole being to be a more receptive sensor to what is going on. She suggests that we quieten our minds, both before and during situations where we need our intuition. She encourages a sensitivity to feelings and images as the primary way in which we get in touch with intuition. And she warns that if we have not cleansed our own emotional bodies, our projections, transference, and our triggers, we will be distracted us from picking up on the subtle messages that are being sent. She points to meditation as a key tool that allows intuition to come into conscious awareness without interference.

Clearly this is part of the puzzle. Doing our own emotional work is the price we pay for the privilege of meddling in the conflicts of others. However, there is another way that we can develop intuition, and paradoxically it is through the use of heuristics or rules of thumb. I say paradoxically, because heuristics can be developed by the conscious or thinking mind.

In essence a heuristic is tool that helps with decision making. For example, in health care, young doctors are told, when you hear hooves, think of horses, not zebra’s. This helps minimize the unfortunate tendency of newcomers to assume that the disease is exotic rather than common most of the time. When confronted with a lot of data, it helps to rapidly come to the best solution most of the time. A heuristic is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation.

Interestingly, Gerd Gigerenzer in his book, Gut Feelings, suggests that this is exactly how intuition works. Intuition, he suggests is really the application of unconscious rules of thumb, some developed through knowledge, and others already evolved, which allow us to focus on a small sample of information to reach conclusions, much in the way that Malcolm Gladwell describes ‘thin slicing’ in his book Blink.

So, for our purpose, what heuristics are available to guide us when it comes to decisions that we must make when helping others resolve conflicts. In other words, what are our simple rules of thumb?

Emotional Heuristics For Conflict Resolution

The sad truth is that there is no library of heuristics to guide how we respond to emotions in a conflict resolution setting such that our intervention decisions are more likely to guide the parties to resolution. For the most part what we have are lists of interventions that can be used. The question of when which intervention should be used is the task that lies ahead of us, unless we continue with an essentially random approach that relies on big chunks of trust that each new conflict resolution practitioner will get it right.

I have included at the end of this paper, some of the more classic interventions that I and my colleague Eileen Barker have been developing. We use it in conjunction with our core beliefs about emotion (also included). And while helpful, the reality it that we need to start developing is a list of markers that essentially say, when this occurs, do this most of the time.

Let’s take an example. Imagine, you as a HR manager are asked to facilitate the conversation about the performance review issue I referred to above. One of your beliefs is that feelings are not the same as behavior and that a possible intervention you are considering are communication preferences aka ground rules. Over the years I have developed an informal heuristic that says:

When emotions are high and trust is low, be explicit with behavioral ground rules.

I have found this to a helpful guide, and in these circumstances where there are strong emotions between the employee and her manager and low trust levels this would be a good idea most of the time.

Let’s imagine you do, and the conversation is going well. However, as the employee is telling her manager how upsetting the performance review is, and how she is afraid that she won’t be able to support her child if she loses the job, she starts to cry. My belief is that everyone is responsible for their own feelings, that the expression of feeling is healthy, and that it is not my job to fix or change what others are feelings. The classic question, of whether to offer tissues, if you have any, could be the basis of another heuristic. I know that some colleagues who will immediately offer a tissue, and others that make tissues available but fall short of offering them. So, as you can see there are two possible heuristics:

When tears appear, acknowledge the emotional content and intensity and offer tissues.


When tears appear, acknowledge the emotional content and intensity and make tissues available, but do not offer them.

My practice is to follow the latter practice on an intuitive basis. My gut tells me that I am right, but I don’t really know why. My out loud thinking is not evidence based science, and hopefully will be taken to another level through research.


An interesting rule developed by a foreign student, was to always laugh when others did, even if he didn’t know why they are laughing. My sense is that most professionals working with others in conflict know what to do without always knowing why. As we evolve our capacity to both resolve and to teach how to resolve conflict, acknowledging the role of intuition is vital. Having a methodical way of increasing our capacity to respond intuitively will help newcomers to the field avoid unnecessary and painful lessons. The last thing I want to suggest is that we become robotic. But we do need to look honestly at what we do, when and why and look for the general lessons.

Core Beliefs

1.Human beings are emotional and have feelings.
2.All (both externally and internally stimulated) emotions/feelings are valid.
3.Feelings are not the same as behavior.
4.We can change when we allow ourselves to feel.
5.We can choose how we relate to our emotions.
6.No one is responsible for anyone else's feelings.
7.Appropriate expression of emotions is healthy and empowering.
8.Don't try to “fix” or “change” the feelings of others.
9.The essence of emotion is motion. Moods are about stagnation.
10.Emotions are part of an open system and can be perceived both consciously and unconsciously.


• Do Nothing
• Acknowledge the emotional content and intensity (empathy)
• Validate the sense their emotion makes to their identity
• Reframe from truth to perceptions, from the past to the future, from demands to needs and from blame to problem solving
• Establish and use communication preferences (aka ground rules) to address negative/unproductive communication
• Acknowledge impact, and explore intention
• Risk surfacing what your gut tells you-the deeper truth
• Explore thoughts connected to the emotion
• Describe and make explicit the pattern/dynamic
• Ask, “What would I be feeling?”
• Elicit and draw attention to apology and other conciliatory gestures
• Explore issue of forgiveness
• Reinforce positive moves
• Use humor and laughter
• Be welcoming and hospitable

November 30, 2007

Calming Techniques

In a previous practice note I suggested that there are two ways we can approach our penchant for reactivity when we are triggered. One seeks to address why it is that we are triggered in the first place, the more deep and long term solution. The other focuses on the moment that we are triggered, and seeks to restore short term balance. It is really the symptomatic response-the band aid-that helps the person in conflict calm down, and release the primal grip of the amygdala so that the cortex can come into play. This practice note focuses on techniques for calming down.

The range of these techniques is informed by our understanding of the physiology and neurobiology of stress and relaxation. When a man or a woman is triggered and experiences stress the sympathetic autonomic nervous system is activated and with it a series of typical physiological reactions: dilation of pupils, inhibition of salivation, constriction of blood vessels, acceleration of heart beat, relaxation of airways and inhibition of indigestion. Our bodies prepare for fight or flight. More recent studies of woman under stress have led to an appreciation of gender differences in the stress response and how women will also exhibit ‘tend’ and ‘befriend’ behaviors.

The autonomic nervous system predates the development of the cortex and is essentially driven by the constellation of inner brain structures referred to as the limbic brain, most importantly the amygdala. From a neurological point of view the danger is that when we are triggered and experience a stressful event, our cortex with its capacity for social restraint, alternative analysis and conscious choice is compromised, and we are literally hijacked by the amygdala. We become stuck in a stressful emotional reaction.

An awareness of the early signs of being triggered is vital to being able to calm down before we are swept away by strong emotions. Ideally we are able to self monitor ourselves, but it is not unusual for friends and partners to provide that vital feedback-“you are going red in the face and your lips are tight”; “you are pale and look like you saw a ghost” or even “I notice tears welling up.” Amazingly the person experiencing any of these three physical reactions may be unaware of their anger, fear or sadness at a conscious level.

Assuming that we do gain conscious insight to our physical reaction-whether through self monitoring or through third party feedback, what are techniques that we can employ to calm down?


Of all the techniques, probably the most powerful is our capacity for conscious breathing. When we pay attention to our breathing we can shift our physiological reaction and start to calm down.

Breathing is powerful for a number of reasons. Firstly, we can only breathe in the present. So, when we focus on our breathing our capacity to project to the future (as we do in fear) or to the past (as we do with anger) is limited. Secondly, our inhalations stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, and our exhalations stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. The latter is referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ response. For the most part it produces the opposite physiological reactions to the sympathetic nervous system. So when we breathe deeply into our diaphragm, and make our exhalation longer than our inhalation, we are in affect shifting the balance toward the parasympathetic and a more relaxed state. A third benefit of deep (diaphragmatic or abdomen breathing) rather than shallow (chest) breathing is the amount of oxygen we inhale. When the brain is well oxygenated it functions better. In addition, chest breathing creates shorter, more restless brain waves, while abdominal breathing creates longer, slower brain waves. Longer and slower brain waves are similar to the ones your brain makes when you are relaxed and calm.

People employ a variety of breathing practices to achieve this. Some count their breaths; others focus on their breathing in a manner that ensures that breathing is a continuous loop, while others focus on the movement of their bellies in and out with each deep and purposeful breath.

Mental Visualization

More than anything, our capacity to focus the attention of our mind on something enables us employ a range of techniques that do not require physical exertion. Mental visualization is an example It is a powerful tool that can easily be demonstrated using biofeedback devises that track your heart rate. If at the point you become aware that you have been triggered you imagine a scene in which you feel comfortable, content and at peace your heart rate will drop and you will relax. Your body is reacting to the imagined scenes as if they were real, rather than to the situation that triggered you. The more vivid detail you focus on the better. It helps to identify the scene you plan to use in advance of being triggered. Examples include a tropical beach, a favorite childhood spot, or a quiet wooded glen.


Meditation is another useful calming technique that relies on the power of our mind to focus attention. Numerous scientific studies have established the power of mediation to relax the body and reduce the impact of stress. To meditate, sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, relax your body, and focus your attention on something for a period of time. A limitation is that it is difficult to employ ‘in the heat of the moment.’ However, it has great utility during breaks-even as short as 5 minutes, and certainly at the end of the day.


Both mental visualization and meditation could also be described as distraction techniques. In effect you are distracting your attention from that which is causing the stress reaction to something that has the opposite effect. However, it is also helpful to think of the power of distraction all on its own. When a mother waves a teddy bear in front of her crying baby she is a distracting technique. When a police officer asks an angry citizen to remember the factual details of what happened, he or she is using a distracting technique. When you try and count back in multiples of 23 from 1 000 345 678 the next time you are angry you are using a distracting technique.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Other calming techniques rely on some form of physical exertion. This makes sense when we consider that the fight and flight response is preparing us for some form of physical action. One of the challenges, especially in the modern office environment, is that our opportunity for exercise while we are being triggered is limited. Often we are in meetings, on the telephone, or behind a counter.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves the systematic tensing and relaxing of muscle groups This technique is easy to do, even if you are behind a desk or on the phone. Importantly, it can help you calm down by relaxing the major muscle groups in your body.

Next time someone pushes your buttons in a meeting try tensing and relaxing your feet –one at a time, then your legs-one at a time, then your hands-one at a time. Just that will help. For a full ‘treatment’ you would ideally begin with your facial muscles and work down through the shoulders, arms, chest, legs and feet.


Any exercise that you can do, at the time of, or soon after you have been triggered will help. This can be achieved by requesting a break-and then using it to take a walk or doing a few press ups in your office. Sometimes you can invite the person you are having the difficult conversation with to take a walk. Not only will the exercise help you, but also them!


We are all triggered from time to time. Unless we are aware that we are being triggered there is not a lot we can do. Fortunately there are a range of techniques available to us to help us calm down and regain our centered, balanced state. Practicing our technique of choice will go a long way to help out in the most difficult of circumstances.

November 01, 2007

From Reaction to Response: Conflict As A Choice

Once we embrace that conflict is inevitable in social relationships, the question we have to ask is “how do we respond?” Responsibly, we’d hope. Yet, for the most part, when we are in conflict, we are not very responsive, and tend to be reactive. Shifting to a responsive approach to conflict is easier said than done. When we are in conflict situations, we are typically being triggered and reverting to our unconscious conflict handling scripts.

What’s the difference between a responsive and a reactive approach? When we respond to the challenges of life-including our conflict situations-we take responsibility for our role in the situation, we are in tune with what we are feeling and why, and our thoughts, words and behaviors are conscious of the bigger picture. By contrast, when we react, we shift responsibility for the situation to the other through blame; we assume the victim role and are ‘justifiably’ carried away by powerful feelings like anger, fear and grief. We use an unconscious template for reaction that seeks acknowledgement, justice, restoration, and even revenge.

One of the reasons that it is so hard to be responsive is that we experience and are typically exposed to unproductive conflict scripts from the time of our birth. Our earliest lessons come from the approach our parents take to their own conflict, our experience of how our parents deal with us, and as we grow up, through our interactions with siblings, friends, colleagues, teachers and bosses. If we struggle to deal with our differences with the aid of language, try and imagine how hard it was during those early pre-verbal years when we didn’t even have a word to describe conflict.

As a species we have achieved great physical and mental milestones, and yet when we are threatened by another’s behavior-as is typically the case in conflict-we reveal how immature we are emotionally. It is as if we revert to our childhood mentality when we are triggered.

Knowing this at an intellectual level is one thing. Being able to shift our physical and emotional behavior from reaction to responsive choice when we are actually triggered is another. If only, because when we are triggered, we are by definition not in our most conscious state. Our well worn neural pathways take us away from the perspective taking cortex, into the reflexive limbic structures such as the amygdala. We are in a reactive survival mode.

As modern neurologists, such as Antonio Damasio, have helped us understand, emotions are enmeshed in the neural networks of reason. In other words, there is no such thing as a decision free of emotion. Yet in our culture, we continuously hear expressions that extol the virtue of not making emotional decisions. This is one of the great challenges of our time-how to mature emotionally, such that we can make responsible emotional decisions about how to deal with our differences (aka conflict).

There are two ways we can approach our penchant for reactivity. One focuses on the moment that we are triggered, and seeks to restore short term balance. It is really the symptomatic response-the band aid-that helps the person in conflict calm down, and release the primal grip of the amygdala so that the cortex can come into play. There are a variety of calming techniques that help with this. Until the next time we are triggered!

The other is more causal and seeks to transform the trigger mechanism itself. This approach is centered on taking responsibility for our own emotions and learning new templates for our emotional responses. It relies on the inherent plasticity of the brain to rewire its well worn templates.

Stuff happens. We all experience pain and discomfort. The shift is in seeing that when we are triggered, it is not because of something out there that is happening, but rather the interpretation we give to the situation. A blue sky can mean hell for a farmer desperate for rain, and joy for a sunbather at a beach. What triggers one, will not necessarily trigger another. Playing the victim is a choice. And when we do, it feeds into our tendencies to react.

If we can make the shift from victim to navigator of the quality of our own experiences, we can start to work with the energy of the emotion. So often we suppress what it is that we are feeling, or just give our emotions free reign. Both of these reactions are tempting, but do not help shift the trigger mechanism. In fact the unresolved emotional energy continues to seek release and sets in motion the characteristic spiral dynamic of destructive conflict.

Gestalt therapy has a simple suggestion for change-feel what you are feeling. It is only when we are able to experience where we are emotionally that we can move somewhere else. Some find this scary. Imagine, allowing yourself to feel the anger. Almost immediately you tell yourself to be bigger, and to show compassion. Or if you are disappointed at a friend, you chastise yourself for being judgmental. Yet, to change the way we are triggered, we must allow ourselves to feel what it is that we are feeling.

This does not mean that we wallow in our feelings. We use the attention of our mind to focus and clearly identify what it is that we are feeling. If we are able, we trace back in time, other experiences where we were triggered in a similar manner. You have probably heard people asking in exasperation, “why does this keep happening to me?” It is because they are carrying unresolved emotional energy that in all probability will take them back to an incident that occurred in the earliest years of their lives.

Once we have identified the emotional signature that we associate with the trigger, and explored its commonality with other life experiences, we can allow ourselves to feel the emotion, ideally with a mind that is compassionate. In other words, we do not judge ourselves for what we are feeling. When we can do this, the energy of the emotion can move, and not be hijacked by limiting neural structures like the amygdala.

When we allow our feelings, when we start to experience them fully, and to welcome them into the neural hallways of reason, we can start to respond in a more mature way to our life challenges. We are able to take the stock of the bigger perspective and incorporate the significance of what is happening to us right here, right now.

As long as we have unresolved emotional energy, we will always be triggered by this or by that. Each of us discovers through his or her triggers, the areas that seek integration. When we allow these situations to morph into conflict situations, we have choices. One path takes us toward the well worn templates of reaction. Another takes us toward calming techniques, and ways that work with (not against) the energy of the emotion.

This path is not easy, for in the moment of being triggered we are outraged that we are being treated the way we are. The situation in our mind rises to a level that demands a reaction-and when we don’t get the ‘response’ we expect, our ire only increases, and we set in motion the destructive cycles that we ultimately call conflict. A shift that is honest about our proclivity for reaction and which moves us toward-not away- from our emotions increases our chances of a conscious response to the challenges of the inevitable conflict that comes our way.

Being aware of the difference between a reactive and responsive approach is the start. Then the hard work begins. As we uncover the contours of our unconscious conflict handling scripts we can begin to shift. We learn how to calm down, to take responsibility for our reactions, and hopefully to feel what is going in a wholesome manner that doesn’t exclude our most creative problem solving capacities.

September 28, 2007

Tears In Mediation

It is only a question of time before someone cries during one of your mediations. For a new mediator this can be unsettling. What does it mean and what intervention options are available and indeed advisable?

Someone once said to me that tears on the outside are a sign of healing on the inside. If we remember that when people are stuck in conflict, it’s almost like they are frozen, then tears can also be a sign that they are starting to thaw, and change. Both these frames to look at tears suggest potential, and that as a general rule, tears are a good-not bad-thing.

In my experience, being comfortable with crying (like the exhibition of any strong emotional states) and being able to fully validate what it is that the person who is crying is feeling, can go a long way to facilitating a lasting resolution of the conflict.

Ken Cloke (an insightful thought leader in the field of conflict resolution) has articulated how there are different levels at which we can resolve a conflict. It starts at a physical level when the parties stop fighting. The image that always comes to mind is of two children being pulled apart.

We can settle the issues-as we typically see happening in a court arena. At a cognitive level, there is agreement on what needs to be done. Another good example is the way the dispute between Israel and Lebanon was resolved in 2006. They stopped fighting, and resolved the border dispute. I think we are all know that the conflict is still simmering.

Getting to a lasting resolution requires that we traverse the emotional waters and deal with our pain and discomfort. This is not easy. For the most part our emotional templates were developed when we were young and unless we have worked on increasing our emotional literacy, we and the disputants we encounter in mediations will be unaware of their templates.

If people are to move beyond their anger, grief or fear they must feel it. Suppressing or sedating emotional pain or discomfort doesn’t work over a long period of time. Tears are typically a sign that the emotional pain and discomfort are being addressed –that a thawing or healing is taking place.

The cynics amongst you will correctly point out that tears can also be used to manipulate and deflect responsibility. Even if that is true at times, my view, as a mediator, is that something significantly upsetting is still occurring, and that the tears remain a sign of desperation that should be validated with respect.

Beyond validation-letting the person know that their emotional response is valid from their perspective-we should consider whether to meet with the person who is crying in private. However, beware of sending a message that tears are not a good thing, by ushering the person away.

Given that crying can constitute a loss of face for some, and that they would prefer the opportunity to cry in private, it is wise to check in and get a sense of what is needed. When someone’s tears follow what appears to be an ambush, or where they feel out of control, meeting in private may be a good idea.

Obviously, having handkerchiefs is a good idea, but offering them should not necessarily be the first response. Better to anticipate and have them available. Offering them can imply that the response is inappropriate and worse, take the person away from what they are feeling.

Beyond the more intuitive reasons to value tears, it is interesting to know that from a physiological point of view tears are a way that the body releases stress related hormones like cortisol.

So the next time you notice someone start to tear up during your mediation, see is as an opportunity to address the emotional energy. Be sensitive, and work to validate the emotions associated with the tears. It could be the very thing that helps the parties reach a lasting resolution.