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Dealing Effectively With Flight or Fight: What Stops Conflict Before It Can Start It, Part II

(Originally published September 26, 2019)

In my last post I contended that one of the biggest reasons we don’t engage in useful conflict is the emergency response system we humans have to danger – Flight or Fight. (Except for those few crazies we know who seem to LIKE conflict.) I also said that that reason is Flight or Fight’s natural tendency is to steer us away from what makes us uncomfortable or anxious, whatever our best intentions in that situation might be.

Uncomfortable physical sensations and feelings come from “what if?” thinking, and that’s the primary topic of today’s blog post. We can deal with Flight or Fight (and our tendency to avoid conflict even when we need it) by addressing the thinking that fires up Flight or Fight in the first place.

I think it, I feel it, I step back

Here’s something everyone on the planet should know: feelings and physical sensations – including the ones that accompany Flight or Fight - don’t happen unless you think about something first. (I’m excluding physical drives like hunger, thirst or sleep from this list.) I’ll say it again: it’s not possible to have a feeling (or a Flight or Fight sensation) unless you’ve had a thought first.

Two things to note here: 1) thoughts can happen outside of our conscious awareness. 2) they can come FAST. Lots of us have the mistaken impression that we have to be conscious of a thought for it to be a thought. Not true. We are thinking thoughts all the time that don’t run across the threshold of awareness, like how to brush our teeth or how to drive our car. All of that work requires a lot of thinking – but it isn’t conscious thinking, unless something is new or requires our conscious focus.

It is in fact habitual thinking, and this is a primary source of thinking that makes us anxious. More about that in a minute.

So it takes thoughts to fire up Flight or Fight. Cue a situation at work where you KNOW you need to be direct with someone, even confront someone, about an issue or problem that’s almost certain to risk some level of conflict. All it takes for you to potentially be tempted to decide to NOT engage is have a small-to-moderate Flight or Fight surge move through you physically and emotionally.

You might even be semi-aware it’s happening. But the question is, what are you doing with it? Are you responding to it, or are you reacting to it? And how does someone respond, making conscious choices, rather than simply react to it and step away?

What Are You “What Iffing” About?

Step one is to identify where your thinking is firing up Flight or Fight – where your thinking has you making anxious anticipation of potential negative outcomes. Simply put, what are you afraid of?

It’s a strange question to ask adults. Most grown-ups tend to reflexively say “well, nothing, really”, or make an effort to minimize their worries/fears. But the bottom line is that we don’t avoid conflict unless some anticipated outcome of conflict (or the doing of conflict itself) has us worrying about what could happen to us if we do conflict.

Some common “what if?” thoughts around conflict are

  • What if I make things worse?

  • What if I wreck this relationship?

  • What if I leave lasting damage in this relationship?

  • What if I hurt my chances for promotion?

  • What if people think I’m a bad person for engaging in conflict?

I’m sure you can think of more…

It can take a little time to surface that thinking for ourselves, assuming we don’t already know what troubles us about engaging in conflict. One useful clue is noting when we feel a small (or bigger than small) surge of Flight or Fight while having a thought… The key is to bring to consciousness what we’re telling ourselves about conflict. We can’t really address our avoidance of conflict until we do -

Crisis vs. Problem Thinking

Because it’s only when we can look at those thoughts straight-on that we can then see clearly where we’re conjuring a crisis about this issue in our thinking. “What if?” thinking might also be called crisis thinking, because that’s exactly what we’re telling ourselves (and Flight or Fight) that we’re dealing with – a form of life-or-death crisis that we have to get away from, right now. Doesn’t have to make sense, doesn’t have to be “rational” for it to have that push on us.

This requires that we be able to sit with that thinking, even briefly, until we can see it for what it is. One example from my own experience is my family training, which was that the start of conflict would bring yelling, and yelling seemed to bring on extremely hurtful things said, which would in turn lead to long periods of stony silence and passive-aggressive punishment. (Sound familiar to anyone?)

It was easy from there to develop “what if?” thinking around even getting close to conflict situations, and well beyond my family. It was only when I was made aware of just how conflict-averse I was that I was able to even begin to edge towards what was firing up Flight or Fight so powerfully whenever I got close to potential conflict.

Which leads to Step 2, being able to get somewhat comfortable with Flight or Fight’s reactions as we do this work.

Flight or Fight – Tedious, but Not Dangerous

We are poorly trained, as a civilization, about anxiety and Flight or Fight. One thing most of us don’t get is that Flight or Fight isn’t going to hurt us. It doesn’t feel very good (and triple that if we’ve learned to be afraid of specific reactions or feelings, as many of us have) and we can really make ourselves crazy trying to avoid it or bury those reactions.

But at the end of the day it’s just an alert system, and it’s only telling you that you are scaring yourself with “what If?” thoughts about this or that. Like conflict, for instance. Knot in your stomach? Flight or Fight warning you that you’re telling it you’re thinking about something risky, at least to you. Dry mouth? Heart skipping a beat? Feeling restless? Unaccountably sad? Flight or Fight – just trying to keep you safe.

How to sit with it? Start small. 30 seconds. 1 minute. Stay with the thought or thoughts that trouble you, and slowly teach yourself that nothing more than some physical and emotional sensations are occurring while you’re sitting with that thought.

Uncomfortable? Yes. Dangerous? No. And it’s amazing how even a small amount of practice can get you to Step 3 – seeing the scary thought as a problem, instead of a crisis. (Note: I don’t mean after 1 10-minute practice or a couple of tries. Flight or Fight will keep responding as long as we’re making whatever we’re worrying about into a crisis in our thinking.)

A Problem is a Problem

When we’re able to get to what rattles our cage about conflict (and that can be more than one “what if?” thought, don’t forget) we can begin to translate that from dangerous to challenging, from crisis to problem thinking.

In fact it’s surprising how quickly we can move into things that originally daunt us IF we’re aware of this whole “what if?”/Flight or Fight thing. We’re all pretty good problem solvers, yes? When we convert “what if I damage this relationship by risking conflict”, for example, to “maybe I should discuss some potential ground rules with this person so we can take a stab at trying some conflict” we are much less likely to escalate, say things we don’t mean, etc. when we DO wade into a difficult conversation.

We don’t have to be afraid of conflict, and there are enormous payoffs for developing a capacity for smart, safe conflict. All we have to do is stay clean in our thinking, and be able to interpret Flight or Fight when it comes calling in our bodies and feelings.


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