What makes these conversations difficult?

It is useful to understand what causes disagreement and conflict. Why do we all find certain conversations difficult? Why is that some situations seem to make us irritable and argumentative? There are two main aspects to this answer:

  • the patterns of thinking and behaviour we have developed over our lifetime, and
  • our in-built tendency to react emotionally.

Patterns of Thinking and Behaviour

One useful way to look at this is through the lens of human evolution and development. This suggests we are all born with certain patterns of behaviour – innate behaviour. Babies smile when they are smiled at and up to the age of six months grip a finger that is placed into their hand. These are primitive behaviours that help us to survive.

As we grow, we develop ways of behaving and thinking based on our experiences and what we are taught in our family, at school, in our communities, and at work and play.

Our minds have evolved to build templates from our experiences for use in gauging future experiences. We learn to recognise things by how they look, sound, smell, feel, and taste. Much of what we do relies on us recognising such patterns and acting on them. Our minds have become incredibly efficient at doing this. One consequence of this is that it also makes us lazy when it comes to consciously examining the matching of external patterns to internal templates.

Some of the templates can be simple, such as in the words or letters that enable us to read and write. They can also be very sophisticated and multi-dimensional. We are able to recognise people we know well not just by how they look but also by how they move, how they sound, and maybe even by how they smell. When our minds receive fresh information, we automatically compare this against our templates, identifying what we are sensing to match this against the templates. This then dictates how we react to the situation.

We are able to do this very quickly because we can check multiple patterns at the same time, often bypassing the conscious mind altogether. This pattern recognition process takes place in many different parts of the brain. According to Professor Steve Peters, two, in particular, are responsible for our survival and success – Peters refers to one as the primitive, emotional mind, or as he calls it, the chimp mind, and the other the sociable, human mind. More of this shortly.

Another aspect of this is that because we are exposed to enormous amounts of information in every waking moment, we have evolved ways to quickly filter out the things that we can safely ignore to focus on the ones that we need to act on.

However, this tendency to follow short cuts can mean that we develop blind spots, or cognitive biases, to give this its psychological term. Wikipedia provides this extensive list of cognitive biases. An example of one bias that has an impact on our interaction with others is ‘confirmation bias’. This is our tendency to readily accept information that agrees with a current template and to discount information that in some way contradicts it. This article describes 10 cognitive biases that distort our thinking, including confirmation bias.

Few of us spend time consciously examining and questioning our templates and the evidence we have collected to support them – but we do know our views on a subject, what our experiences have been, and the values and beliefs we hold. These are all interlocking templates.

The good news is that if we wish to get better at handling disagreement and conflict, we do something to change our templates. It was once thought that much of how we are, how we behave, and how we think is totally ingrained in us in childhood and this, once engrained, could not be changed. However, advances in neuroscience have established that the brain is much more plastic than originally believed and can change throughout our lives. This understanding is the basis of most modern therapy.

Reacting Emotionally

When we are in strong disagreement or severe conflict with someone, it is almost impossible not to react emotionally. But we should not be too hard on ourselves over our failure to curb our emotions. Emotional responses and gut reactions are part of our DNA – our ancestors relied on responses that bypass our conscious brain in order to survive.

Many of these reactions are quick and strong because they are triggered from templates stored in the primitive, emotional mind, located in the limbic region of the brain. The limbic region developed millions of years ago and is common to all animals. It is responsible for keeping us alive. It is a part of the brain that evolved long before our ancestors could be recognised as homo sapiens, or even primates. It is very quick and strong. It needed to be. Our ancestors’ survival relied on quick reactions – they needed to know whether or not what they saw or heard was a potential source of food or a sign that they might be about to become a predator’s next meal.

The other part of our brain that we use during difficult conversations is the sociable, human mind, located in the neocortex region of the brain, particularly that part located in the prefrontal cortex. In evolutionary terms, this is a much later development and is thought to be closely linked to our overwhelming success as a species. This part of our mind is responsible for such things as rational thought, planning, and empathy, the things that enable us to be part of larger social groups

Our ancestors’ survival relied on recognising danger and reacting in one of three ways; Fight, Flight or Freeze. These reactions are triggered by a part of the brain within the limbic region called the amygdala and are incredibly strong and fast. They can be so fast that we are not aware that we have reacted to something for up to 1.5 seconds after we have reacted.

In extreme cases, we may never be aware of what we have done. We don’t have time to think, so our mind does not call on our higher processing powers to deal with the situation, as this would just slow things down. In these situations, things become very black and white – survive or die, fight or flight.

In our modern lives, we are less likely to be in physical danger, but research has shown that the same parts of the mind are to a lesser extent also involved during social situations. The emotional mind is on high alert looking for potential threats, and can easily react accordingly. When we perceive a threat, our emotional mind reacts first and being stronger overpowers the social mind. Our thinking becomes ‘black and white’.

‘Black and white thinking’ is used in the Human Givens approach as an way to refer to the psychological term ‘cognitive distortions’. Black and white thinking means that we are no longer able to see the subtle shades of grey between the extremes. It becomes a case of “I am right and you are wrong.” This makes us unable to see the truth – that most situations are rarely all good or all bad. The result is that disagreement leads to unhealthy argument and unwanted conflict. We might go as far as to say that reacting emotionally often makes us think stupidly, because we are not using the parts of the mind that are designed to help us navigate tricky social situations.