In a conflict, is it best to strike while the iron is hot and try to identify and resolve the problem as it's happening? Or is it better to address it later, after you've cooled off a bit?
A couple weeks ago, I attended a mindfulness retreat. During a discussion of mindful stress management, the teacher informed us that in the moment of a stress reaction (e.g., mind racing, heart pounding, blood pressure skyrocketing),
access to the rational and reasonable part of our brain is essentially
cut off. While this initially seemed counterintuitive, it makes sense in evolutionary terms: When we face a threat, all of our body's resources are allocated to the fight-or-flight response, helping us either fight with all of our might or escape. Survival is the only objective and our attention narrows to focus exclusively on the threat; the part of our minds that can consider and deliberate isn't needed.
This resource allocation system is adaptive when it helps us escape from a sabre-tooth tiger or lift a car off a trapped child; however, our minds and bodies do the exact same thing when we're facing everyday hassles, delays, slights, and other stressors. Not recognizing the stress reaction, we often push forward with conflict resolution and problem-solving, making things worse.
Earlier this week, I received what I perceived to be an unprofessional,
insulting, and just plain mean email from a colleague. My body
immediately launched a stress reaction--hot face, pounding heart, tensed muscles. My mind racing with righteous indignation, I dialed my colleague's number and then, remembering what I learned at the retreat, hung up and decided to step away from my desk. Sitting in the lunchroom a few minutes later, I observed what was
my mind ("Who does she think she is! That's so mean! After all I've
done for her!") and in my body (see above), and dug around to see which
emotions were present (hurt, anger, frustration). This information led
me to believe that I was having a stress reaction and helped me decide to put off respond to the email for 24 hours. This decision definitely led to a more satisfying resolution of the conflict!
The concept of addressing conflicts and problems once you're
temporally and emotionally
removed from them isn't new. But learning that half of our brain
missing when we're in the throes of a stress reaction really hits home: It explains why it's so
hard to think when we're upset and why, when we're mad or
scared or sad, we can't consider alternative perspectives, and often miss
information that's easy to see once the stress reaction passes. But how can you tell when you're having a stress reaction? This is where mindfulness comes in: Sit or stand still for a minute and become aware of your thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. Tune into how you're feeling and then use the data to decide what to do.
NB: Strike when the iron is cold applies equally to the other parties involved in your conflict. That is, you may be calm or have moved beyond your stress reaction but you need to be sure that the other party has too. You don't want to problem-solve or conflict-resolve with someone who's missing half their brain!