As Daniel Goleman coined in 1995 through his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, the amygdala (the portion of the brain used to regulate our fight-and-flight response patterns) can become “hijacked.”
This occurs because we feel threatened. When conflict arises, we unconsciously think we need to fight or avoid the problem altogether (flight). The intense emotions disagreements stir, as Goleman states, “[M]ake us pay attention right now... and gives us an immediate action plan without having to think twice.” Diane Musho Hamilton, an author, mediator, and teacher of Zen, puts it another way: “In the throes of amygdala hijack, we can’t choose how we want to react because the old protective mechanism in the nervous system does it for us – even before we glimpse that there could be a choice” (2016). That’s a person’s psychological defensive system at work.
This unconscious reaction, which people exhibit during conflict, creates a triggered communication pattern based on one of four responses: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
Most people are aware of fight and flight responses, but few may know about the freeze or fawn responses. Fight defends, flight avoids, freeze indicates inaction, and fawn wants to people-please. For each type of communication response, a person will manifest a corresponding communication style based on two variables: how likely they are to listen versus how likely they are to speak up. This chart gives an overview of the different styles and how they overlap.
When disagreement stirs a person’s psychological defense system, their communication style will become their de facto way of listening and speaking up:
The fighter: Headstrong and fiery, fighters go after what they want even if it is detrimental to their relationships. Their willingness to use their voice means they have underdeveloped listening skills, causing them to mishear information or shut down conversations with their sometimes-boisterous ways. They react according to the fight response pattern.
The avoider: Trapped in their internal dialogue, avoiders shut down and may have a fear of speaking up. The avoider tends to filter the information they hear according to their own story, feelings, or predetermined perspectives. They typify either the flight or freeze response pattern.
The peacemaker: Wanting to appear and be diplomatic, peacemakers listen to everyone at the expense of their voice. As a result, they do not speak up for what they want and may become people-pleasers instead. Here, they are in the fawn response pattern.
The compromiser: Half-listening and half-speaking up make for a unique combination within compromisers. Their past may have primed them to quickly troubleshoot issues based on limited information in the hopes that they can fast-track a solution to a disagreement, hampering their ability to deepen their connections fully. They can either be caught in the flight or freeze response pattern.
The collaborator: An expert listener, collaborators are willing to speak up, creating a synergy between themselves and the person they disagree with. They have a unique ability to fight for their wants while also making sure the person on the other side feels heard.
Once a person has a specific response – fight, for example – to a disagreement, they will unconsciously communicate the energy of that reaction. In the case of the fight response, they’ll become the fighter. Over time, their communication patterns may look combative, overly assertive, or principled, no matter how serious the conflict is. They may even become a bully.
On the other hand, someone like the peacemaker, who over-listens and under-talks, will accommodate and seek to make everyone else happy first. In time, peacemakers may become people-pleasers. Even if their needs come last, acquiescing to another person’s wants may help them feel like they have some control over the disagreement. As a result, they may become resentful and shut down completely, leaving those who need to interact with this person dumbfounded as to why they don’t engage more readily.
Why do we do all of this?
Think back to the child’s psychological defense system. That defensive system, as an adult, is the amygdala hijack on crack. Being overcome by its psychology, a person’s body will unconsciously protect itself. The neural synapses then fire following their fight, flight, freeze, or fawn pattern, creating a triggered communication dynamic in a disagreement because someone feels threatened (Goleman, 1995). Should the disagreement become prolonged, it’ll reinforce the Conflict Cycle of Unresolved Trauma we previously spoke about, causing further distress.
Identifying your default fight, flight, freeze, or fawn pattern is the first step in creating a new middle for yourself. Specifically, if you freeze, fawn, or take flight in a conflict, that means creating safety for yourself and understanding why you dissociate, withdraw, or people-please. If you’re the fighter, however, it’s about learning empathy, emotional intelligence skills, and why you feel the need to come off so headstrong when disagreeing. All patterns, though, must be lovingly challenged if the person exhibiting the style wants to shift their coping behaviors and ways of speaking. And it must be done consciously.
How do you know if you are reacting to conflict and are triggered?
A quick way is to notice what is happening to your body during the disagreement. Does your heart rate go up? Does your throat tighten? Are you lost in thoughts? Or maybe your stomach churns or your hands become sweaty? Each of these provides somatic clues for when you may be triggered. An effective technique I use to reframe these reactions into responses is to stay with my body during conflicts. I place my hand on my heart or stomach and remind myself that I am not my reactions. If I feel my heart racing, I know to slow down. If my stomach starts churning, that’s a clue that something is not okay. Each of these reminds me that my body has a better understanding of my trauma-informed reactive patterns than my conscious mind may even be aware of.
With time, tracking your own body during conflicts begins to reset your own triggered communication patterns, creating a new middle.
This blog is an excerpt from a chapter titled "Triggered Communication" from my newly released book, "The New Middle: Connecting Heart and Mind to Collaboratively Disagree," available to buy online on Amazon and Barnes & Nobles.
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