The behaviour spiral
Have you ever come home from work feeling on top of the world and then your partner has arrived home after you in a foul mood and completely ruined your high spirits?
Consider the following diagram:
Basically, our emotional state affects our behaviour, and our behaviour (which in raw terms is an external projection of our attitude) influences the emotional state and attitude of the people with whom we come into contact and interact. It is easy to see how this is an interactive system which can become a reinforcing cycle; the result can be either a positive experience or, in conflict situations, it can tip someone over the edge into aggressive or possibly violent behaviour.
In order to gain better influence and control over interactive situations with clients and colleagues, we must first learn to control our own emotional state.
How do I manage my state?
There is much you can do to manage your own state. It is your state, after all, and not the plaything of circumstances and other people. The key thing in a conflict situation is to manage it in the moment, and to actually remember to do so. The fastest and most reliable route to changing your own state quickly is to use your body. Your body is linked to your state in such a way that if you change your body, you will inevitably change your state. This also works in reverse.
The way you breathe has a huge impact on your emotional state. This is by far the most important thing to control in order to manage your state. The chances are that if you are in a conflict situation, you will start to breathe high in your chest, taking small quick shallow breaths. This is part of the body’s way of preparing for action (see the page on The role of fear). With your body in this mode, you will tend not to think clearly, which greatly reduces your chances of a peaceful outcome to the conflict situation.
Take a single deep breath... and then another one. Keep breathing more deeply and slowly, and you will notice your state change. You will be calmer and you will be thinking more clearly. The other person will notice this as well, although perhaps not consciously, and this will break the behaviour spiral, and perhaps even start it moving in a positive direction.
If you want to test this for yourself without having to engineer a conflict situation, watch a movie that ‘gets you wound up’ – perhaps one that contains a fight scene. Change your breathing to low and slow, and notice how this will tend to detach you from the action. You become more a dispassionate observer than a participant.
A smile has an effect on you because it releases feel-good chemicals into your system. It also sends peaceful signals to the other party in a conflict situation. You might not feel like smiling, and that is the whole point. You want the situation to get to the point where you do feel like smiling, as then you have a conflict well on the way to a peaceful resolution. So smile, even if you don’t feel like it just yet.
There is, however, a caveat. A smile could exaggerate the problem if, in the circumstances, the aggressor feels that you are making fun of them or laughing at them. So use your judgement.
Typically, in a conflict situation, we tense up our muscles. This sends all the wrong signals to both our mind and that of the other party. It is a tall order to simply say ‘relax’ in a conflict situation. The way to do this is to start by relaxing your breathing first. You will then find it easier, and even inevitable, to relax tension in your body.
How would a person who is relaxed and in control of the situation move? This is what you need to aim for. Would they stand up? Would they reach for a pen and write down some notes? Of course, you also need to consider what affect such movements would have on the other person, given the situation. In especially fraught situations, make sure that any movement you do improves your access to escape routes.
A very powerful way to alter your state in the moment is to use an anchor. This is explained in detail in the NLP pages on State management and Anchoring. There are also many useful techniques on Self-management in the Emotional Intelligence topic.
The pattern interrupt
A simple way to disrupt the behavioural spiral is to use a pattern interrupt.
A pattern interrupt is something so out of the norm within an interaction that it interrupts the flow to such an extent that people stop and wonder what is going on. For example, if you suddenly stood on a chair while having a conversation with somebody, what would their reaction be? Would they lose their train of thought? Probably. If they were really angry, would it change their state from anger to something else? Again, probably.
Now, you don’t have to stand on a chair, as there are many ways you could introduce a pattern interrupt into a conflict situation. A well-placed pattern interrupt can break the behavioural spiral completely, either stopping the build up of aggression or simply confusing the other person long enough to enable you to escape. It could be something as simple as saying ‘Is that the fire alarm?’ However, you must use your judgement; a pattern interrupt may not always be the appropriate strategy.