How to Know When We’re Leading from Reactivity

How to Know When We’re Leading from Reactivity

How to Know When We’re Leading from Reactivity 1000 667 Brook Thorndycraft

The other day, I woke up with a sense of dread.  I had to have a difficult conversation with someone who really pushes all my buttons.  When my alarm went off, I was already overtaken by reaction and convinced it would be a disaster.  I thought about canceling to avoid it.  I thought about sending a nasty email that would let her know what I thought of her. 

Does this sound familiar?  They are pretty typical reactions to anticipated conflict. 

I didn’t do either of those things.  I recognized my reaction wasn’t going to help, and I employed some strategies to plan a more helpful approach. We had a conversation.  It didn’t feel good, but we got through it, and the situation feels a bit better now.

Why is it so hard to make choices in conflict?

Our nervous system experiences conflict as a threat, so we react with our survival strategies. These are reactive patterns of thought, feeling, attitude, and behavior that we learned early and repeated because they helped us in some way. Our body tends to rely on them without much awareness. These are our fight, flight, freeze, feign death, and fawn/appease reactions.  

These patterns show up differently for everyone.  Someone gives you feedback and you feel defensive and angry and can no longer listen.  You shut down or avoid a conversation when it would be helpful to be upfront about what is going on for you.  Maybe you have a tendency to give up something important to you to protect the relationship.  

Some of those survival strategies are harder than others to recognize, because they are couched in social norms like professionalism and politeness.  When someone disconnects from emotions and wants everything to be dealt with rationally, that can be as much of a conflict survival strategy as yelling at someone.  When someone prioritizes niceness over saying what they actually think, that can be a sign that there isn’t enough of a feeling of safety, either for the person or in the environment, to say things that would potentially cause discomfort. 

Building new habits

We all have survival strategies that we learned because they have worked for us.  This is brilliant. They helped us manage difficult situations and kept us safe.  But sometimes these strategies become a habit.  We use them when they are helpful, but we can get stuck in them when they are not helpful. 

It’s not realistic or even desirable to believe we should strive to be calm, rational, and emotionally regulated all of the time.  We are human and we have big reactions.  Sometimes being able to fight it out is very healing and the best catalyst for change. 

That being said, it is possible to have more choice in our responses.  When we have choice, we can move between nervous system states with more fluidity, a sense of capacity, and a feeling of alignment with our dignity. Sometimes this might still mean that getting angry and fighting it out is the most effective response.  Other times, particularly when there is unequal power and an unsupportive environment, we might need to appease until we can find a way out or find support.  Other times, we feel safe enough and the context is safe enough to do the uncomfortable work of building mutual understanding and trust.  When we have more fluidity we don’t get stuck as often in one pattern.  We have options and can make choices.  

What if I’m in a leadership role?  

Fluidity is especially important for people in formal leadership roles, as leaders have a greater responsibility to develop a range of ways to respond in conflict. This is because of the power attached to their role.   

Power amplifies the negative impacts of a conflict reaction. 

As Julie Diamond explains in her book, Power: A User’s Guide, ​​Leaders often feel like they have less power than other people perceive them as having.  This difference in perception can be especially true in conflict, when our survival habits are telling us we are under threat.  I have worked with many leaders who feel overwhelmed or mistreated when they are in conflict with their employees.  These feelings sometimes lead to behaviors that damage the relationship in ways that have lasting impact.  

For example, a manager I worked with would freeze when someone was angry with her, and then get defensive.  One day an employee was frustrated with her in a meeting. Feeling defensive, she sent an email to the employee after the meeting about how she needed to maintain professional behavior.  The employee experienced the email as unnecessary performance management and bullying behavior, and filed a formal complaint.  

This leader would have benefited from expanding her capacity to respond to conflict with a range of strategies that fit the situation. 

Expand your Window of Capacity for conflict.

Over time, you can expand your Window of Capacity for conflict (you might have heard of the Window of Tolerance. Same idea.)  The Window of Capacity is the range of stress that our nervous system can handle without sending us into our survival responses.  When we are in our window, we are more able to connect with others and experience creativity, flow, and feelings of openness, trust and curiosity.  This is when we can build and repair relationships. 

When we are triggered, overly stressed, or receiving signals of danger from our nervous system, we go out of our Window of Capacity.  We might go into hyperarousal, which includes high energy states such as fight, flight, and certain kinds of high energy freeze.  Or we might go into hypoarousal, which includes low energy states such as passive freeze, feign death, or collapse.  There are also states such as fawn and appease that may appear like we are in our window, but actually we are agreeing or going along with something because we feel a need to please the other person, or it feels unsafe to disagree or say no. It’s important to note that fawn and appease responses tend to go unnoticed because they look like agreement.  They are especially common in situations of unequal power where one person faces a risk to belonging or safety if they speak honestly.

When we are out of the window, it’s very hard to stay connected and invested in the relationship.  To make it more complicated, in conflict everyone tends to have a hard time staying in the window and people feed off of each other’s survival habits.  Trying to resolve conflict in this state rarely goes well.

People’s windows are different widths depending on all kinds of factors including chronic stress, past trauma, current and ongoing trauma, and sickness.  The width of the window is also impacted by ongoing microaggressions, harassment, and other aspects of toxic, high conflict, and unsafe workplaces.  

In particularly challenging times our windows are narrower than they might be in better times. All of our windows are narrower right now, due to the two years of COVID, war, racism, financial inequality, gender and gender-identity oppression, and increasing polarization.

How do I expand my Window of Capacity? 

We can shift our patterns.  Sometimes expanding our window benefits from support from a coach, therapist, other healer, or community that is important to us. Other times we can start by noticing our patterns and practicing new skills. Here are a few practices that can help you get started.

1) Understand what happens to you when you are out of the window.

Conflict survival habits are not always obvious to us at first.  You might want to reflect on a recent work conflict and identify the behaviors, feelings, reactions, and thought patterns that came up for you.  You can start with the following questions:

  • What tends to happen when you are upset with someone at work? Do you have familiar patterns?  Which people or situations are more likely to lead to those patterns?
  • What kinds of thoughts do you notice (if any)?  What kinds of emotions do you notice (if any)? How do you tend to behave?
  • When have these patterns been helpful for you?  When have they not?
  • How do you think they might be experienced by the people you work with or lead? 

2) Notice the pattern happening, and interrupt it when you can.

As you become more familiar with your patterns.  Start by trying to interrupt them if they are coming up in unhelpful ways.  If you’re noticing yourself getting upset, remember to breathe or stand up and stretch. Take a break if possible. This might need to be a long or short break, depending on your nervous system and the degree of the trigger. When our survival habits have formed in reaction to very old or very intense experiences, it can take longer to come back from them. Other times a few deep breaths might be enough. 

During the break, do something that helps you get back in your window. This will be something different for everyone. Some people find it helpful to do vigorous exercise. Others need to talk about it with a supportive friend. Sometimes we need rest. Other times we need to cry or laugh.  A training participant once told me that it helps him to contemplate the vastness of the universe and his tiny place in it.  Whatever works for you is great. 

Try to be patient. This takes time and it will never be perfect. When we notice the habitual reaction but can’t change it in the moment, the noticing is still a success. When we occasionally do something new, that is amazing and something to celebrate. When we fall into our habits, we can reflect afterward and set a new intention, and that is more than enough. If you’re feeling really stuck or discouraged, that’s again a good time to reach out for support.  

3)  Try something new, and see how it works.

Practice new strategies when you are in your window, in a confidential context with someone supportive.  Sometimes I roleplay a conflict situation with my coaching clients, and invite them to try different ways of communicating.  Try it with a supportive friend and ask for feedback to find out how it landed.  

You can also imagine what might be going on under the surface of the conflict for the other person. How might they tell the story differently?  Be curious about what’s happening for them.  Notice how this feels, and how your conflict habits react to the effort to imagine the other perspective.

Practice building new skills when you’re not in the middle of the survival habit so that eventually the new skills come more naturally under pressure. 

4) If this feels too big, reach out for support!

If you find these suggestions confusing or overwhelming, take your time and be gentle with yourself.  You can also reach out for support.  Sometimes it’s easier to build your capacity to notice what is happening in your nervous system with someone there to witness and support you.  

Finding ways to feel connected is key.  You can connect with yourself through self-compassion and pleasurable activities. You can connect with other people or animals in your life. Community, nature, and cultural or spiritual practices are all pathways to connection and healing.  All of these help us expand our window.

Our biggest most entrenched survival strategies might be related to deeper traumas that need to be processed.  This is when a therapist or other trauma-informed healer might be helpful. 

Do you want to learn more about expanding your window? Check out our upcoming learning opportunities for leaders: Building Emotional Agility and Generative Conflict: Leadership Skills for Healthy Workplaces. You can also sign up for the Big Waves mailing list for special promotions and to be the first to know about the upcoming launch of an at-your-own-pace conflict skills training!