Six Ways to Fight Fair: Keeping the Smart Parts of Our Brain Online

Conflict is unavoidable and it’s counter-productive to try to avoid it. So how do we manage conflict, i.e. fight fair?

It is very simple: We need to keep the smart-parts of our brain active for as long as possible.

Stan Tatkin has dubbed the smart, slow parts of our brain as ambassadors. Our ambassadors reside in the higher regions of our brain and they are what make us human. They give us the ability to effectively manage a complex society.

Here is a link to Stan’s TED talk.

He refers to the dumb parts of our brain as the primitives. These are the fast regions associated with survival, and they activate our fight or flight responses. They don’t take the time to think like our ambassadors. They are quick to spring into action for our protection.

The mantra of our ambassadors would be, “Keep the peace, be smart, and don’t do anything you will later regret.” The mantra of our primitives would be, “Protect yourself by any means necessary, and ask questions later!” Our primitives serve the important function of keeping us alive. However, in an intimate relationship they take us out of the window of tolerance and we run amok.

When we are in the window of tolerance, we have the tools to listen and understand our partner’s perspective. We have the ability to respond appropriately with our own needs. Basically, we have the ability to be flexible, and to handle conflict in a win-win fashion so no one feels like they lost. Thus, our best opportunity to manage conflict and fight fair is to keep each other in this window, which means to keep our ambassadors online.

Depicted in the middle is the social engagement window aka optimum arousal. That is where our ambassadors are fully functioning.

Here are six ways you can keep each other’s ambassadors active during conflict:

  1. Use your eyes. The fascinating thing about our eyes is that they simultaneously are relaxing as well as stimulating. In other words, they can be used to communicate safety and friendliness, which is the best antidote to our primitives. As mentioned in Stan’s TED talk, do not fight in the car (where you’re not face-to-face or eye-to-eye), via text, or email.

    Exercise when not in conflict: silently gaze into each other’s eyes for three minutes and take note of how you feel when time has elapsed. This may seem difficult and awkward atfirst, but stick with it. Trust me you’ll feel different!

  2. Stick to one topic. When other topics are unloaded in a fight, it becomes confusing. When we are confused, our primitives are alerted to protect us and we prepare for battle. Broaching other topics is like putting up a smokescreen and is a form of defensiveness.
  3. Avoid grand gestures. Although we may not be doing it on purpose, grand gestures such as quick movements and finger pointing alert our primitives to prepare for battle. Be cognizant of how you use your body – our primitives are fast and most of our communication is done through body language.
  4. Notice your primitives gathering (arousal spiking) and self-regulate. As soon as you notice this, use your go-to self-regulation tools, such as taking deep breaths, observing what you are feeling (mindfulness), thinking what your partner is feeling (metacognition), or applying the 10/10/10 rule. The 10/10/10 rule is thinking, how will I feel about my response ten minutes from now, ten days from now, etc.? It doesn’t matter what the number or time range is; the point is that by consciously thinking in this manner, you are calling on your ambassadors to help out.
  5. Use your voice prosody to regulate you and your partner. Even if your arousal is spiking (primitives gathering), you may still be able to speak calmly to regulate you and thus your partner. If your speech is choppy, booming or shrill, it is a sure-fire way to get out of the window of tolerance.
  6. Regulate and move forward. When you have started to self-regulate, pass this on to your partner. By communicating that you are friendly through your eyes, voice, and body language, move forward and assure your partner that you are not going anywhere. Remind them that you picked them and love them for who they are. This is especially important for partners with a preoccupied or anxious-ambivalent state of mind.

    Bonus: do you two have inside jokes or shared funny phrases? Humor goes a long way in arousal regulation.

These six ways to fight fair are simple but not simplistic. They take practice, maturity, and a degree of humility to utilize. Often, our anger feels good and we feel fully justified in it. However, it does not serve us well in the end, as we will need to apologize and repair what was done or said outside the window of tolerance. You may find your own tools that work; just remember that our ambassadors provide the best opportunity for us to manage conflict.

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