It’s natural to feel tense when you’re going into a stressful situation, but tension can trigger emotions that derail conversations. Unfortunately, our remote world isn’t helping. We have fewer conversations, and that’s impacting our communication skills, says Hesha Abrams, author of Holding the Calm: The Secrets to Resolving Conflict and Defusing Tension.
“Our society is so fractured now,” she says. “We don’t have to talk to each other anymore. As a result, we don’t know how to resolve conflict other than, ‘Let me just tell you how wrong you are. You should listen to me.’ And that is fatally ineffective.”
Part of the problem is our biology, specifically the amygdala, which is located in the back of our brain just above the brainstem. “[It’s] the fear and negativity center of the brain,” says Abrams. “[The amygdala is] useful if you were a caveman or cavewoman who wants to know, ‘Is that a stick or a snake?’ The brain makes that decision in a nanosecond, although sometimes it can be wrong.”
The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that drives logic and reason, takes a couple of seconds to engage. And that can be too late to the party if your amygdala already took over. “In a nanosecond, the amygdala detects friend or foe, and boom, you’re in conflict,” says Abrams.
To let the prefrontal cortex take over, you need to calm down, but that’s easier said than done. “Once the amygdala has been triggered, the worst thing you can say to somebody is, ‘Calm down.’ Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down.”
Instead, Abrams says there are three ways you can regain control:
Intentionally Hold the Calm
Once you feel triggered, saying the words, “I’m holding the calm,” can help you feel powerful instead of powerless.
“Now, I have options and choices where before I felt like I had none,” says Abrams. “I have created a moat between the intensity of what I’m feeling and how I choose to act and respond, protecting myself from doing and saying stupid stuff.”
In her book, Abrams provides several ways for holding the calm. For example, you can decide to listen to the other person—without jumping in with your viewpoint or advice. You can offer something and take advantage of the power of reciprocity. You can let silence fill the space. You can turn frustrations into curiosity and ask questions. Or, you can choose to avoid reacting to someone else’s tantrum.
Look for the Power Position
Once you walk into the room holding the calm, Abrams says the first thing to do is to identify the power position, then sit as close as possible to it. If your boss is at the head of the table, sit to his or her left or right.
“What happens in the amygdala, is it says, ‘I’m scared. I’m nervous. I’m afraid, so I will sit away’—thinking it will protect you,” says Abrams. “Honestly, this will make you more scared, afraid, and worried. So, go right to wherever the position of power is.”
React with Questions
Once you listen to whatever is being said, don’t react by responding; react by asking a question, depending on what’s happening.
For example, you might ask, “What did you mean by that remark? Did you intend to offend me? Did you intend to exclude me? Have you considered the consequences of that statement?”
“All of a sudden, it becomes a discussion in problem-solving or in trying to achieve your goals rather than you reacting and defending,” says Abrams. “Reacting and defending are never persuasive. You could be 100% right, but you won’t persuade anybody. In the end, it’s about getting what you want or preventing something you don’t want from happening.”
All conflict starts with tension, says Abrams, but most of us ignore it, thinking it will go away. “Often, we don’t handle the tension because we don’t know what to do,” she says. “It’s like spilling spaghetti sauce on the counter. If you leave it overnight, you’ll have to scrape it off with a spatula. But if you if you wipe it up with a sponge right away, it comes right off. Holding the calm is how you address tension right away.”