Conflict Communications came about because a dissatisfaction with current de-escalation and conflict management
Our dissatisfaction with these programs comes from seeing
conflict resolution training fail in application.
Don't get us wrong, the information is sound and the
tactics often work. In fact, from the safety and comfort
of the boardroom and training room these programs are bang on
... except somehow things still fall apart in application.
By now you might be asking, if the information is sound, then why does it fail? The fastest way to explain it is by pointing to an 1850's
mountain man cook book. In that cookbook there was a recipe for
Mountain Man Rabbit Stew. Step one: catch a rabbit.
In these modern days of markets and ease of getting supplies,
we tend to forget that having the rabbit to cook really is step one.
Since this was a cook book for people living out in the wild,
the author didn't assume the rabbit was already in the bag. If you
don't have the ingredients, the rest of the recipe is pretty meaningless.
It seemed to us that most conflict management 'recipes' make
the same mistake. They presuppose you've 'caught a
rabbit.' This assumption is why most attempts at de-escalation
fail. You've got the recipe, but vital ingredients are
That's why our
recipe for de-escalation training goes like this:
De-escalation strategy. Step one, de-escalate yourself.
That's the equivalent of catching the rabbit. It's the first
step that everything else is based on. If you're emotional and caught up in the default human conflict behaviors,
the best de-escalation training in the world is of no use
to you. You're not going to be able to do it.
The problem isn't with the 'recipe,' it's not having
the ingredients. This is why we can say these programs are sound
and, in the same breath, say they usually fail in application.
Conflict Communications doesn't assume you already have the
ingredients, we start with teaching you how to catch a rabbit.
Then we'll deal with recipes.
So what are these missing ingredients of conflict prevention,
de-escalation and resolution? And how to you get them?
Let's first acknowledge the problem. That is: It's hard to
stay as cool as a cucumber and remember to do complex
de-escalation strategies when someone is in your face, screaming
and threatening you with physical violence. It's also
difficult to stay calm, when you're in a verbal conflict over
something you feel strongly about.
Admitting this is the first step in taking control of your
The reason admitting this is important is underneath your
calm, rational and solution-seeking human mind, every animal
instinct and monkey brain drive that you have will be clamoring
'DO IT OUR WAY!'
Understanding this internal conflict is step one of
de-escalating yourself first.
We are not creatures of
we are creators of circumstance
-- Benjamin Disraeli
If we divide our brains into human, monkey and lizard, that
means you have a two/thirds majority voting for following
scripted conflict behavior. And that means behaviors that
are emotional, excited and fixated on other priorities than
actually fixing the problem. That last line needs some
clarification. Since different parts of your brain have
different agendas, what those parts consider 'the problem' can
That makes 'fixing' the problem a bit more
complicated. Because once in a script, most people are fighting
for everything except what the conflict was initially about.
For example, a new computer program is needed at your office
and it has become a conflict. Your human brain is oriented on
resolving the debate of what is the best computer program to
use. That should be a rational discussion. That's not
always how it works, however. In this hypothetical the conflict
is between you (who are proposing a new program) and the person
who promoted the old program.
Remember, the monkey brain is far more concerned with
protecting emotional well being and social status. In his case,
he perceives you proposing a different computer
program as a challenge to his position or insult to his competence and knowledge.
HE chose that program after all, the one YOU are saying is no
But what about your monkey brain? Well let's
start with the fact that you're probably going to be getting
signals from that other person about what's going on inside his
monkey brain. That most likely will trigger you as well.
You might try to explain the benefits of this program choice
from a seemingly rational and professional standpoint (cost,
savings, etc), but in your monkey brain, you're taking this
resistance personally -- just like him
Add to the mix if there's still a third person
who wants another program. Then there's other people's monkey brain
resistance to change (even if they're not happy with the old program,
they are familiar with it's pitfalls). In
no time at all you have conflict. This is what can turn a simple
issue like choosing a computer program into office politics and
even screaming arguments in meetings.
To give you a visual of this process of other parts dictating
our behavior, imagine a driving a bus down the road. Except it's
not a case of the 'human you' is always driving the bus. The
monkey and the lizard want to drive it as well. And even if they
don't manage to take total control of driving, they have a bad
habit of grabbing the wheel and yanking it in the direction they
want to go. When someone is extremely emotional and irrational,
we call this "The monkey is driving the bus."
The danger here is that you can very easily slide into monkey
brain scripts while telling yourself you're being calm
and rational. Odds are if you're slipping into your monkey
brain, so is everyone else. Or they are there already which is
why you're reacting emotionally.
Although anger is the most obvious example, there are many
far more insidious ways to slide into this mental state. But
here is something you should know: There is no clear warning signals and flashing
lights that indicate when you're slipping into these behaviors.
By the time you are aware that you are upset, you're already a
long way into the monkey brain.
This is especially true because we can still talk. Have you ever
told someone to be reasonable and have them shriek "I AM BEING
REASONABLE!"? Have you ever unexpectedly found yourself saying
something petty and hurtful? It literally just slips out? That's
an example of the monkey gaining control for a moment.
If that happens during a conflict, it's going to cause the
situation to escalate further. If it happens during a
de-escalation, odds are good the situation will explode.
If they want peace, nations
should avoid the pin-pricks that precede cannon-shot
-- Napoleon Bonaparte
That's because the other person's monkey brain is going to
recognize your monkey brain behavior and react the same way.
That will put you both into a 'monkey dance'. That is an
escalating spiral of primate conflict behavior that is not
beneficial to you or the other person. Worse, a monkey dance is
never about fixing the problem, it's about preserving the
And this will ALL happen faster than conscious thought. All
it takes to trigger these patterns is a look, a tone of voice, a
choice of words or a gesture. If the monkey brain perceives a
threat to its agenda, rational thinking starts to slip away.
Worse, emotions are contagious. Once one person is infected,
we're all susceptible to getting sucked into these patterns.
This is why it is important to start with the
understanding about the two/thirds vote going on inside
If most of your human brain is focusing on the
immediate problem and the situation, how many brain cells are
you going to assign to keeping the monkey and lizard parts from
dictating your words and behaviors?
Going back to something we mentioned earlier. Even if you
think you are in control of yourself and that the
monkey isn't driving the bus, you have to be aware that
it can reach up and jerk the wheel. A snarky comment, annoyed
look, a tone of voice, a flash of contempt and even unconscious
body language can slip out destroy your attempts at resolution
And when that happens the
other person -- who's likely in his or her own monkey brain --
will see your signals. (Incidentally, people who pride
themselves on their intellect are especially vulnerable to
little monkey bits slipping out.) The other person is going to
see these signals as an attack, pending attack or invalidation.
Anger is only one letter short
You need to acknowledge this trait because something the
monkey is REALLY bad at doing is apologizing. This is a natural
consequence of its belief that it's not wrong, it's the other
monkey's that's wrong and misbehaving. Signs that you are in
your monkey brain are when
1) you are emotional, (offended, angry, seeking revenge)
2) convinced you are right,
3) not about to back down and
4) the original problem is eclipsed by other issues.
While it is easy to spot this behavior in someone else during
a screaming argument, that's because it's an extreme. It's much
harder to spot it when it's more subtle, for example in the
office, between you and your spouse, in dealing with your
children or family members. It's especially difficult to spot it
within yourself when the situation is subtle.
So the first element of de-escalating yourself is to admit to
yourself that you can be emotional and irrational. This
undermines the fanatical dogma and power of telling yourself
that YOU ARE BEING REASONABLE! (As Marc often points out, the
monkey is really good at stealing up and taking control of the
bus while telling you how rational and reasonable you are being
in the situation.)
What are some more signs that the monkey is trying to grab
- You start to like or dislike an individual
- You feel disrespected, challenged or insulted
- Your focus changes from fixing the problem to proving
that you're right
- You seek an excuse to dismiss the other person words and
- You seen an excuse for your group's deeds or words
- You are doing the same for your words and behaviors
If you have found yourself engaging in these thoughts and
actions, then try though you might, the de-escalation training
you have is likely to fail. Not only will you be unable to
effectively implement the strategies, but that other person's
monkey is going to be seeing what yours is actually doing.
And that's going to escalate things.
An injury is much sooner
forgiven than an insult
-- Lord Chesterfield
The second element of de-escalating yourself is what to do
when you find yourself in the monkey trap to break the cycle.
#1) Identify if there's an immediate physical threat.
The monkey brain is extremely concerned with things that cannot
be put into a wheelbarrow. Emotions, social status, self-esteem,
pride, none of them have a physical existence. And yet, they are
an overwhelming cause of conflict. More than that, in attempting
to protect them conflicts can escalate into physical violence.
If someone is yelling and screaming it's easy to believe we
are about to be physically attacked. But are we really? Is the
person within attack range? Is the person trying to get into
If not, that person isn't about to attack. Stop and think
about the last time you got into an argument with someone that
didn't go physical. Odds are you were at a safe distance from
each other or had something in between you and/or were careful
NOT to invade the other person's personal space. That's how we
show the other person that although we're serious, we don't want
it to become physically violent.
Knowing that you are not about to be physically assaulted is
a key element in being able to de-escalate yourself.
#2)Don't deny that you've fallen into the monkey trap --
especially to yourself
Face it, we're human. So is the other person. Since
a) emotions are contagious
b) we react to them faster than conscious thought and
c) we are programmed to react to these scripts
there is no shame for getting pulled into these patterns.
You just don't want to be making your decisions for you.
Knowing that they are our default patterns and that there's a
two/thirds vote going on to follow them, cut yourself some slack
for not being perfect (another monkey script incidentally).
There's something else that can help too. Wikipedia
gives this definition:
De-escalation refers to behavior that is intended to
escalation of commitment bias. Since
escalation of commitment often has the tenets of escalation
of conflict, it can also refer to approaches in
conflict resolution. This often involves techniques such as
time-out, and deflecting the conversation to individuals in
the group who are less passionately involved.
Escalation of commitment is what occurs when your monkey is
driving the bus. And 'bias' is the right word. You become more
and more myopic to other options and even more insistent about
achieving a particular goal a certain way. Interestingly enough,
one of the surest signs of this process happening is the
simultaneous belief that you are being rational, open
minded or are reacting appropriately.
The first step in learning how to break out of a monkey
script is to recognize when you are denying to yourself that
you're in one. Simply admitting to yourself that you're
getting emotional is biggest step in de-escalating yourself.