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Dancing with Discord


Most of us are conflict avoidant. Either we are passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive. Both can be obnoxious and unproductive. An aggressive person is, in fact, often conflict avoidant. They come on so strong in an effort to stop the conflict quickly and aggressively. A passive person can wait and look for his/her turn to retaliate.

There has to be a better way and yet…. why do people act this way?

Neuroscience has known for a long time that the reptilian part of the brain – called the amygdala – is wired to see objects, people and situations as demanding a response: fight, flight or freeze. See that black line ahead of you? Is it a snake, is it a hose, or is it a crack in the sidewalk? See that person? Are they friend or foe?

Your amygdala, located in the back of the brain, responds in a nanosecond, faster than your cognitive brain can keep up. This is why we instantly like or dislike someone, why we can be hostile or afraid without a good reason. We’ve all experienced this, it’s part of human physiology.

Current theories in neuroscience have clearly demonstrated that this reptilian brain makes decisions for us and then our prefrontal cortex, the large thinking cognitive part behind our forehead, simply rationalizes the decision already made by our amygdala.

The brain acts the same whether you’re the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company or an individual inventor, pilot or businessperson worried s/he’s not going to get a good deal, a good neighbor, a good business partner, a good life partner, good in-laws. In other words, this takes place in all humans.

When the amygdala is activated and the passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive stance begins, neuroscience has proven that you go through ocular occlusion, i.e., tunnel vision, and auditory exclusion, which means you stop listening. This is a dangerous place to be.

We miss ques.

We miss clues.

We miss body language of veracity.

We miss opportunity.

So then how can we develop a “Dance with Discord”- the ability to stay present in the face of conflict, fear, or uncertainty, so that we keep our faculties, develop good a strategy, keep our keen perceptions, keep our sense of calm. Without these, it is very difficult to find common ground, to avoid pitfalls, to see another’s point of view, to look for creative solutions, seize opportunities, and choose the correct path forward.

We need to create and develop the ability to be uncomfortable with conflict in order to calm down the amygdala so we stay in control and avoid being reactive. Then we are able to hear more, see more, and understand more, thereby allowing creative thought processes, ideas, and options to emerge. We become responsive rather than reactive.

The big question is HOW do we become comfortable with conflict when we’re feeling unsafe, nervous, insecure, arrogant, self-righteous or pressured?

The amygdala can get triggered by almost anything: fear of failure, fear of success, being reviewed or observed, not meeting expectations, having excessive expectations, leaving money on the table, not knowing all the facts, relying too heavily on our own version of the story, fear of consequences, being unable to obtain additional information or verifying information, being angry, feeling put upon or put out, taken advantage of, and most spectacularly, having unreasonable expectations that don’t seem at all unreasonable at the time.

Quite frankly, it can simply be triggered by not getting our own way, getting pushed around, feeling resistant or stubborn, paranoid, or fearful. The amygdala lives in the land of emotion. The prefontal cortex lives in the land of logic, yet the amygdala controls. Neuroscience has proven this simple concept consistently across cultures, age groups, genders, socioeconomic groups, etc. Yet all humans try to reason with each other and when that fails, we resort to either
being passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive and we label the other guy as “the jerk”, “stupid”, “stubborn”, “illogical”, “ridiculous”, etc.

Far too many advisers, lawyers and mediators try to out-logicate, out-argue, be defensive, or substitute their judgment for your own. This is not effective. First of all, it’s rude and obnoxious to try to substitute your opinion for somebody else’s, especially when you’re trying to assist them in resolving their problem. But more importantly, and scientifically, it is completely ineffective. All of these common ineffective strategies speak to the prefrontal cortex. Decision making is not made there and, quite frankly, neuroscience has known this for decades. So why do we keep doing it?

I think it is simply a skill set issue. People do what they are habituated to do. People do what they have been taught to do. People don’t want to be uncomfortable themselves and learning new skills guarantees that they will be uncomfortable for a little while as they practice.

As a mediator and deal negotiator, I look for these opportunities to provide an oasis in which people can relax into their problem-solving methodology. In every case I get, the Plaintiff wants $100 million dollars and the defendant says “here’s $10,000 and go pound sand”. As a mediator, I am able to hold a space for the intense emotions of anger or rage, aggression, stubbornness, fear, insecurity, jealousy, revenge, sadness, and even depression. I find that if I give people the space to just experience what they’re experiencing, without arguing with them, challenging them, or criticizing them, they can often see clearly themselves through the haze that the amygdala creates.

Then a thoughtful conversation can happen avoiding ocular inclusion and auditory exclusion. This helps parties remain in control, which is the one thing the amygdala craves, and which allows it to calm down. Then a plethora of options open because, after all, it is your dispute; you are entitled to resolve it in any way that you think best. Calming down the amygdala allows for choice which only happens once it is no longer triggered.

Interestingly, allowing someone to say “No” calms down the amygdala and allows the person to reassert control; so don’t be afraid of “No”. It is a gateway to option-generating, reevaluation, and deal making that comes after the “No”, or “Never” or “No Way”.

A good mediator or confidant is insurance against you making rash decisions, allowing the amygdala to be in control or helping you see that you may not know what you don’t know or are seeing or hearing through a filter. It’s very hard to do for yourself when your own amygdala is triggered. Using a mediator, a confidant, a consigliere, a trusted lawyer as a sounding board is always helpful.

I call this process “Dancing with Discord”. You don’t trample, wrestle or contain disagreement. A basic law of physics is that a body in motion stays in motion and exerting a force will encourage an equal and opposite reactive force. Mediators that argue with you or pound on you actually trigger the amygdala more and make finding a deal harder. And, if a deal is reached, buyer’s remorse sets in more quickly and can be deadly if the amygdala had been beaten down.

Rather than resisting, do the “Dance of Discord”. Being present and non-reactive in the face of aggression, anger, self-righteousness, fear, insecurity, and even stupidity, allows you to see more, hear more and understand more. All of which are vital weapons and tools in the creation of a solution only made possible by this “Dance with Discord”.

None of this implies that you still don’t need assistance when your own amygdala is triggered. As a master negotiator and mediator, I find that in times of high stress, if my amygdala is triggered, I seek out a sounding board, make sure my vision hasn't narrowed and my ability to hear another’s perspective hasn’t been reduced. It’s a human trait. The skill is in knowing when to marshal the resources to override its limitations.

Solutions can be found if you learn to “Dance with Discord”.

And that is really the gift of a great mediator.

Robert Fulton was sitting peacefully at a table watching steam push the lid open on a boiling
tea kettle. From that open, calm place, he invented the steam engine.

What will we invent?

Hesha Abrams, Esq.

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