I’m preparing for my “Summer O’ Conflict”, which basically means 5 weeks of Conflict Resolution training.
Conflict is fascinating, but as someone who watches and coaches Improvisers I have to say that the choice to start a scene with conflict is all too common. Some know it’s an Improv Pet Peeve of mine – and I try to get at the root of why this is a common choice for so many of us.
I believe there is something about choosing conflict that keeps us safe. It gives us a problem to solve, but also keeps us from truly connecting and playing in the unknown. We can snap into ‘conflict mode’ quicker than ‘connection mode’.
“In situations of high stress, fear or distrust, the hormone and neurotransmitter cortisol floods the brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. So we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing the point), flight (revert to, and hide behind, group consensus), freeze (disengage from the argument by shutting up) or appease (make nice with your adversary by simply agreeing with him).”
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Further more, when we argue, and we win, we want to keep winning and keep arguing.
“That’s partly due to another neurochemical process. When you argue and win, your brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes you feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s a the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So the next time we’re in a tense situation, we fight again. We get addicted to being right.”
We run the risk of conflict not only being a choice, but a habit…one that we are neurologically rewarded for doing well in.
When Improvisers introduce conflict just for the sake of having something to do on stage, I stop and ask them to tell me what the conflict is really about. Often times they don’t know.
From competition to conversation
Improv is a team sport, just like so many businesses. Similarly, conflict is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be productive and important.
What worries me is the instinctual choice to fight instead of doing the harder work…listening.
If we can view conflict as a conversation instead of a competition, remove the idea of winner versus loser, right versus wrong and instead push towards agreement and the notion of being changed by the other person, then I’m more interested in your dynamics, and your scene. Our brains would like that too:
“Luckily, there’s another hormone that can feel just as good as adrenaline: oxytocin. It’s activated by human connection and it opens up the networks in our executive brain, or prefrontal cortex, further increasing our ability to trust and open ourselves to sharing. Your goal as a leader should be to spur the production of oxytocin in yourself and others, while avoiding (at least in the context of communication) those spikes of cortisol and adrenaline.”