So What's Your Proposal?
The following is an excerpt from chapter 2 of Bill Eddy’s new book titled: So What’s Your Proposal? Shifting High-Conflict People from Blaming to Problem-Solving in 30 Seconds, which will be available in September, 2014.
Chapter 2: The (Brain) Power of this Question
Emma and Jake in Chapter 1 were highly stressed. They were making difficult decisions. But they were able to reach agreements! Could they have done this on their own? Very unlikely. Why did the method of focusing on one simple question seem to help them? How can you use this method in everyday life to help you deal with difficult – or simply upset – people? This chapter explains why this question can work so well and why it is so surprisingly simple – but not always easy, so it takes practice.
Solving Conflicts Under Stress
Brain research shows that we have two different types of thinking for responding to conflicts. One when we are relaxed; another when we are in a crisis. Different parts of our brains respond – automatically and instantly – depending on the circumstances.
Generally, our “problem-solving” brain is associated with the left hemisphere of our brains. Our “defensive reacting” brain is associated more with our right hemisphere. Of course, brain scientists will tell you that these differences are not absolute and that there is a lot of overlap and inter-connectedness between these parts of our brains. So I am just talking about general tendencies to guide your response with upset people, rather than to give you an anatomy lesson. Since I’m not a brain scientist, just think of this “right brain and left brain” point of view as an easy concept to remember when you’re deciding how to respond to upset people.
Crisis Shuts Down Logic (The Amygdala)
There’s a part of our brains that shuts down our logical problem-solving when we are in a crisis. It’s called the amygdala (“uh-mig-da-la”). There’s an amygdala near the center of each hemisphere of our brains. (Yes, we each have two of them!) The right amygdala can shut down our logical problem-solving in less than a second – before you’re even conscious that you have switched to defensive reacting. Your feet may be running, your heart may be pumping, your voice may be yelling, your fists may be fighting – all before you even realize you’re doing these things.
This defensive reacting may save your life, if you are facing a flood, a fire, a violent person or some other crisis. That’s the good news. The amygdala – especially the right amygdala – can set off a whole chain reaction of responses inside us: heart beats faster, shots of adrenaline and cortisol instantly pump through our bodies, muscles tighten, our visual focus narrows and so forth.
The bad news is that sometimes we’re in situations that require calm and logical problem-solving, so that intense and dramatic defensive reacting can get us into trouble – or trigger someone else’s defensive reacting so that they want to harm us in order for them to feel safe.
Overriding the Crisis Response
But we can train ourselves to over-ride our amygdala responses. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the control center and communicates directly with the amygdala and many other parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex can tell the amygdala “It’s not a crisis” and cut off the whole chain of responses I described above. But this must be learned.
On its own, the right amygdala automatically, instantly and unconsciously reacts defensively to facial expressions of fear and anger, to a negative tone of voice, and to hand gestures that look threatening. (The left amygdala responds more to written words that seem threatening.) This amygdala crisis response can occur in as little as 6 thousandths of a second – much faster than your conscious thinking.
That’s why children instantly react defensively to threatening types of facial expressions, tones of voice and other behaviors, before they have learned which are safe and which are not. A lot of adolescent development is learning about which situations are a real crisis or emergency, and which situations can be ignored or enjoyed. Brain scientists say that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until about age 25.
So with practice and preparation we can learn to divert an amygdala crisis response before it gets started (because our amygdala has learned that it’s not a serious threat – from repetition), and we can stay calm and focused on problem-solving. If a crisis response does get started up, we can still learn to calm ourselves. As soon as we realize we are getting unnecessarily upset, we can tell ourselves encouraging statements which will calm us down (see below). This is especially important when there are people around who are starting to get upset in response to each other – or to us!
Defensive Reacting is Contagious
Since everyone else has an amygdala in each hemisphere of their brain, it’s easy for others to get upset when we’re upset. For this reason, brain scientists say that “emotions are contagious.” So as soon as one person starts defensive reacting, those around him or her may start defensive reacting too. You can see this happening in families, with friends, at sporting events, in Internet chat groups, and so forth. Once someone gets real upset, someone else usually does as well. Then it goes on and on until everyone stops arguing or someone walks out of the whole situation.
But logical problem-solving is also contagious. If someone in charge of a group or situation – or any important member of a group – can tell the whole group to stay calm and logical, then it is possible that the upset emotions will calm down and problem-solving can take over. However, this depends on how many people are defensive reacting and how intense (and loud) they have become. If they are too upset, they may not be able to shift over to problem-solving for a long time – like 20-30 minutes or sometimes several days. Once you are defending yourself, it takes a while to physically calm down and become logical again. It can take a while just for the adrenaline and cortisol to wash out of our blood streams.
Why is logical problem-solving contagious? While the amygdala watches for danger, the contagion of logical problem solving may involve another aspect of the brain that researchers have identified over the past 15 years: Mirror neurons. These neurons appear to make us copy the behavior we seen in those around us – at least in our minds, to help us prepare to do the same behavior. If we’re watching a ball game, then in our own minds we are playing that ball game. This may be the basis for how children learn. It may also be the basis for empathy – we may actually feel what other people are feeling around us. The closer your relationship with someone, the more you may actually feel the same joy and sadness that person feels.
With this in mind, you are likely to “catch” the behavior of those around you and copy it. Likewise, those around you are likely to catch your behavior. Yet you can over-ride this effect as well, once you are aware of it. This is important to understand in influencing the behavior of others and over-riding their influence over you.
The BIG SHIFT
The BIG SHIFT is shifting yourself or someone else out of defensive reacting into logical problem-solving. Most of the time, it can occur within 30 seconds when done correctly. You can shift yourself with a brief encouraging statement. Or you can shift yourself by asking one simple question of yourself: “So what do you propose?” Yes, you can use this method on yourself!
Once you have gotten familiar with this concept and practiced asking yourself this question, it can become almost automatic when you start to feel upset with someone else. Rather than reacting defensively, you can focus your thoughts on what your proposal is for managing the situation or resolving a conflict.
In brain terms, you may be shifting yourself from defensive reacting (right brain) to problem-solving (left brain) by having to put your feelings into words. Words seem to be primarily a left brain function, so that as soon as you identify your upset feelings with words, you tend to reduce the upset feeling and become more logical.
For example, in his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell explains that when a witness at a crime is asked what a suspect looks like, it is better for the witness to look at pictures or at an artist’s drawing and suggest changes, than it is for them to try to put their whole description into words. Just using words to describe the person interferes with the mental picture in their minds and can distort it forever. This seems to be because our right brains are more visual and our left brains are more language focused. Whichever hemisphere is dominant at the time influences the perceptions of the other hemisphere. Put words to an upset feeling and the feeling changes and usually calms down.
When you’re dealing with high-conflict people, they are often over-reacting and stuck in their right brain defensiveness. If you tell them they are over-reacting or tell them to “calm down,” they will get angrier with you. This is because they are interpreting your tone of voice and facial expressions as threatening. Rather than shifting them, you are reinforcing their upset emotions by responding with your own defensive reacting.
Remember that you can over-ride mirroring other people’s behavior and you can over-ride your amygdala response when it’s triggered by their intensely negative emotions. You don’t have to react to them in the same way. With this knowledge, you can not only avoid having a negative response like theirs, you can influence their response in a positive direction.
So you can do something that will shift them into logical problem-solving rather than increasing their defensive reacting. Something that focuses them on logic and problem-solving. Something such as: “So what’s your proposal?”
If you can do this with a positive tone of voice and a positive facial expression, then they often will feel safe enough to automatically lower their defensiveness and actually think about what their proposal will be. But this doesn’t work if you say it in a negative tone of voice or with a negative facial expression. You have to practice sincerely, truly, really, really wanting to know what his or her proposal is. Once you learn how to do this, you can truly shift an upset person – including a constantly upset HCP – from blaming to problem-solving in 30 seconds (or less!). It’s a brain switch (from right to left), and our brains can be very fast when we get the message right.
Bill Eddy is a therapist, lawyer and family mediator. He is the author of several books, including It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything and BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People. He is the President of the High Conflict Institute based in San Diego, CA, which provides training for professionals and anyone, in managing relationships and conflicts with high-conflict people. He has produced several videos explaining and demonstrating simple methods for dealing with high-conflict people, including Coaching for BIFF Responses and What’s Your Proposal: Teaching Clients Negotiation Skills. See: www.HighConflictInstitute.com.