“Count to ten.” You probably heard this age-old panacea for controlling anger on the playground. Or, maybe your mother told it to you at very early age to keep you from trouncing a sibling. Like many old sayings it’s the simplification of a profound truth — that you can never solve a problem from the level of the problem. It also represents the core skill for effectively handling conflict –to interrupt our instinctive reaction.
Unfortunately when something’s that simple we tend to dismiss it. We think a practice that worked when we were three couldn’t possibly work now that we’re adults. Especially after all that sophisticated education. So, let me see if I can complicate it enough to give it value and appeal, so that you can put it to fresh use.
When I studied conflict with Tom Crum of Aiki Works, my understanding of energy and communication was heightened. Aikido, a Japanese marital art, teaches you to respond to aggression by connecting with and using the energy that’s coming at you. That allows you to effectively deflect the attack, or transcend the “level of the problem.” To react instinctively and aggressively defend yourself, would be meeting the aggression at the level of the problem.
An unnatural but effective way to rise above the level of a conflict is to internally say “yes” to the event instead of “no.” That makes the connection. Then use the energy by openly asking questions to explore what the conflict is about and discover what you can learn and what will make the situation work.
Accepting conflict as useful reframes it from being something bad to being at least neutral. To shift your interpretation raises the communication above the level of the problem.
Most of us instinctively react to conflict with anger or fear. These two primary feelings tend to mask each other to the extent that it’s often difficult to identify which one we’re having. If you are an aggressive person chances are you’ll identify your feeling as anger first. To admit that fear is fueling your anger would challenge your identity. Aggressive people are right and righteous. If you’re a more passive person fear may actually be the more comfortable emotion to own. However, it’s possible your internal response is really anger. Passive people want to be good. Overall, we judge anger as bad, fear as weak. Anger is not bad but what we do with it on the level of the problem usually is. Fear is not weak, but makes us ineffective if we can’t take action when we feel it.
You may recall another version of that familiar old saw: “Take a breath and count to ten.” Taking a conscious breath always brings you present and fuels your brain. Especially a deep breath. It works in tandem with a ten-count to interrupt instinct and give you a little distance from the first sharp prick of anger or fear. With that quick “space” you can decide intuitively what kind of response is most appropriate.
You might consider that instinct serves our animal self well, but in contrast you can take an evolutionary step up by tuning into intuition. Instinct is blood for blood. That’s what I originally thought an “eye for an eye” meant. (Study later revealed that guideline was actually meant to limit retribution, not ensure it. We are advised to take only an eye for an eye. Not two eyes for one.) Intuition or the direct cognition of what is best requires expansion. Physically, a breath yields an expanded chest. Chemically, a breath yields an expanded mind. Suspending reaction allows room for discernment and the ability to respond effectively.
The core skill for conflict is the flexibility to shift to emotional openness in the wink of an eye. Taking a breath and counting to ten is one technique that will enable you to do it.