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Flight or Fight: What Has Us Stopping Conflict Before We Can Start It

(Originally published September 10, 2019)

On Startling Cats

I grew up with a big Siamese cat named Chang. Chang was almost the archetype of the classic male cat. He was languid, calm, utterly in charge of his world. If he wanted your attention he demanded it. When he was done he would just walk away. He was large and in charge…

Except when something startled him. Then it was clear where the expression “scaredy-cat” came from, because he would bolt for the nearest exit, at least until he was confident he was far enough from the mysterious, dangerous noise or thing that had startled him in the first place. (He was also great at acting like nothing had happened. “Me, scared? Have you met me?” He would elaborately stretch, or start to bathe himself, as if he hadn’t fled for the hills a moment before.)

Why would a big, confident cat let a sudden noise scare him? The answer is what is commonly called Fight or Flight, that ancient self-defense mechanism that anything more complex than an amoeba has engrained in its very DNA. I prefer to call it Flight or Fight, and I’ll explain why a little later in this post.

Our Catlike Reactions to the Notion of Conflict

My cat Chang was only doing what many of us do when it comes to the subject of engaging in necessary conflict. Most of us have some sense that we need, from time to time, to “mix it up” with a colleague, a family member, a friend around some important issue or problem. Many of us have learned at least some basic conflict tools (although it’s troubling to see, as I often do, how many of us have little or no practice with those tools).

We’re even pretty good at advising other people of the need for conflict when it’s needed. So why, then, are we often so tentative ourselves when it comes to starting the ball rolling?

The answer, again, is Flight or Fight. As I go on with the work I do, helping teams and relationships get to functional conflict (and much, much better thinking as a result) the more I realize that this discussion and understanding is fundamental. It is at least as fundamental as ground rules, listening skills and negotiating skills to making conflict work.

We can easily get our brains around the notion that we need to do conflict, now and again. But when we feel afraid of conflict it is often more than enough to stop that necessary exchange, and keep it stopped. Those feelings are messages from Flight or Fight.

Flight or Fight

It is the birthright of every creature on Earth to, in the presence of perceived danger (note the use of the word “perceived”) to be inclined to run FIRST. This is why I prefer to call Fight or Flight Flight or Fight.

You know what I’m talking about! We, just like my cat Chang, tend to be startled at surprising noises or sudden situational shifts. We may not flee the room like he did, but we go on alert, and may even flinch or jump when we’re caught off guard.

That’s a GREAT reaction to have when you’re living in a high-risk environment, like all creatures do in the natural world. That twitchy awareness of the immediate environment, and the resulting readiness to either get the hell out of the way (or, less commonly, fight to get free of whatever threatens us) is a superior survival strategy. “Live to fight another day” makes a lot of sense when you’re dealing with danger in the real world.

You’ve experienced it, multiple times. You see a guy start to swerve in front of you on a crowded rush-hour freeway, and you’re reacting before you are conscious of it. It isn’t a minor sort of reaction either. Flight or Fight is strong, compelling, as it has to be to get us moving in the presence of real danger.

One of the things you experience is feelings. You feel alerted, anxious, stressed, worried, energized, charged up, and you feel compelled to DO something, usually in the direction of getting the hell away from whatever you’re experiencing.

Right along with those agitated emotions are the physical reactions of Flight or Fight. These include but are not limited to racing heart (or your heart skipping beats), blood pressure going up (or dropping suddenly), breaking into a sweat, tingling or numbness in your fingers or all over your body, dry mouth, shortness of breath, tunnel vision, and other unnerving reactions.

Great – but what does all of this mean in the context of getting close to getting into a conflict?

Flight or Fight in Potential Conflict Situations

And so we get down to actually DOING conflict with another person. It’s one thing to ponder in an academic, abstract way the uses of conflict. It’s something else entirely, for many of us, to actually decide to do conflict, however useful, however necessary.

It’s something else because the moment we think about conflict (and assuming that conflict scares us, for any reason) we’ll begin thinking about the potential negative outcomes of conflict for ourselves. I call these “what if?” thoughts. What if I start this conversation and it turns into an insult fest, and I wind up hurt, or they do, or both? What if the other person thinks I’m a selfish nit for starting this difficult conversation? What if I get a reputation as a trouble-maker in this organization?

Whatever our “what if?” thinking, it is guaranteed to fire up Flight or Fight, and the fearful feelings and physical reactions of Flight or Fight are all over us. Another way to understand this is that Flight or Fight can’t tell the difference between real-world danger and perceived danger (danger we’ve conjured in our thinking).

I’m NOT saying that our worries are meaningless or without foundation. I am saying that our worries are just that – worries, concerns, things we want to consider, but not things that we need to avoid at all costs. And this is precisely what Flight or Fight leads us to do – avoid, put off, in an effort to feel safe again.

This is a crucial point: Flight or Fight isn’t about anything except feeling safe again. It just knows we’re telling it something is dangerous or risky, and so it’s working to get us away from that thing, situation, problem.

Perhaps hardest of all is how just-at-the-edge-of-awareness this thinking and reacting is for most of us. We can have this entire experience – think about engaging a conflict that’s needed, have What If thoughts zip through our brains, activate Flight or Fight, and step away from that needed conflict – all with only a vague awareness that we’re doing that. We don’t have to be conscious of the process to do it.

What To Do? I’m going to discuss practical steps in depth in my next blog post, but let’s start with this:

What concerns/worries/what ifs zip through your brain when you think about engaging in conflict?

What feelings and physical sensations accompany those thoughts?

What are the worst-case assumptions your training and thinking make about the outcomes of conflict?

Are you stepping back, instead of wading in, to useful conflict?

Awareness, as some folks say, is half the battle. More on how to deal with this next time!


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