When we feel overwhelmed by a difficult conversation, we can get emotionally swamped and lose access to our good conflict resolution, communication, and problem-solving skills. Here are four quick techniques you can use when conflict muddles your thinking and you want your good skills back.
It was the World Open Chess Tournament in Philadelphia and chess master Adam Robinson had a strong opening advantage. His opponent was squirming.
Then Robinson blundered, losing a rook for a knight. He lost one of his stronger pieces for one of his opponent’s weaker pieces, giving his opponent the edge.
Suddenly, Robinson could see he was going to lose the game.
As he stared at the chess board, angry at himself, someone whispered from behind him, “You can win this position.”
Robinson spun around, surprised, because of course, no one is permitted to do such a thing at a chess tournament.
There was no one there.
The voice had come from inside, his unconscious mind figuratively tapping him on the shoulder.
Robinson turned back to the game and began studying the board very closely. And there it was: A set of moves, an incredible combination that would change the outcome.
He won the game.
Regaining access to our good skills
Robinson later said that it was only when he quieted his conscious mind that he could hear his unconscious mind and what it already knew from his extensive study of chess.
The noise in our heads during conflict is probably not unlike the noise that started up in Robinson’s head when he made a foolish mistake and then grew angry with himself about it. Noise like that threatens to overpower the signals our good skills are trying to send.
4 quick techniques to help you think straight in arguments
Use these techniques on yourself or teach them on the fly to your client, your employee, your teenager, or anyone else who could use them:
1. Breathe deeply for 60 seconds
Upset can cause us to breathe shallowly and rapidly, so we can restore ourselves a bit by slowing our breath and getting oxygen into our system. When we’re breathing deeply, we want to breathe from our belly, not our chest — our belly should expand on intake and continue expanding until it can’t anymore.
One of my favorite quick deep breathing exercises is the 4-corner breathing meditation. It’s easy to do from almost anyplace and no one even has to know I’m doing it.
2. Recall a happy memory
Autobiographical memories can evoke the emotions of the original experience. Even in the face of acute stress, research has shown that happy memories can “trick” us back into a better emotional state.
It’s best if we already have a happy memory at our mental fingertips, so to speak. Read more details about this technique here: A super simple method for regaining self-control.
3. Put a label on the strong emotion you’re feeling
Recognizing and naming an emotion can have a powerful effect on quelling it. In essence, the act of considering and then labeling an emotion transforms the emotion into an object of scrutiny and disrupts the intensity.
Research suggests it’s as useful to label it silently to yourself as it is to say it out loud. Find out more about this technique here: Control your emotions better by labeling them.
4. Do something incompatible with the emotional state you’re in
Dr. Brad Bushman, who has done a great deal of research on anger, lists this technique among several that work because high arousal decays over time. Pet your puppy. Watch your favorite Robin Williams routine on YouTube (warning: nsfw).
Don’t make it hard, just something fun and easy. Listen to this episode of my podcast for more on this: Dr. Brad Bushman myth-busts venting.
If four isn’t enough, here are five more quick techniques to help you think straight in an argument.