Why we can’t have effective conversations when we are upset

We are undeniably, collectively feeling emotionally stretched. The pandemic, racial reckoning, climate change, global political polarization and a challenging labour market has many of us feeling stretched like elastic bands, ready to snap.

We find ourselves in reactive mode and our emotions may be closer to the surface. A disagreement happens at work or home, we find ourselves feeling upset and compulsively needing to talk about it. Then we are mystified that the conversation not only didn’t go well but actually made things worse. We feel even more hurt, distressed, disrespected, dismissed and upset. The conflict is not resolved and may have escalated even more. Worse yet, we stop seeing any path forward because ‘obviously, trying to talk to the person didn’t work.’

Effective conflict resolution or problem-solving requires piecing together a few different elements. One of those is understanding that we can’t have productive problem-solving conversations when someone is upset and reactive. It helps to understand a little about how our brains operate when we feel threatened, the role that plays in escalating conflict.

As many of us have learned, when we perceive a threat, our brains engage a reactive mode of fight, flight or freeze. This survival mode allows us to make snap decisions, reacting to perceived danger without thinking. In The Joy of Conflict Resolution,[1] Gary Harper describes our physical and mental reactions to feeling hurt or angry, or when our emotions are high. When these feelings of threat are triggered, our bodies have a physiological response. Adrenaline and other chemicals are released into our bloodstreams, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, the heart pounds, blood pressure increases and muscles tense.

At the same time as our bodies are engaging our fight, flight or freeze response, our quality of judgment and ability to engage complex communication and processing abilities is diminished. We do not have access to our brain processes of logical reasoning and problem solving when we are in that heightened, reactive state. Harper uses the following graphic to illustrate what is happening when we get angry and reactive:

In It’s All Your Fault at Work[2], Bill Eddy and Georgi DiStefano explain some of the brain science behind what happens when we are in reactive mode. They explain that our brains have left and right hemispheres that place an emphasis on different types of thinking or processing. Among other things, the left hemisphere tends to focus on more logical processes and language and the right hemisphere tends to focus on relationships and non-verbal communication. The right brain also pays a lot of attention to whether we are in danger or can relax. That is where our defensive, protective emotions appear to be processed.

During a crisis, our right brain becomes dominant and the right brain’s amygdala shuts down our logical thinking in order to focus exclusively on protecting us with quick action: fight, flight or freeze. The corpus callosum is the part of the brain that allows us to shift from reactive, right brain processing to more logical, left brain processing. In order to regain access to our more complex logical processing, the reactivity in our right hemispheres must be calmed.

Eddy and DiStefano recommend applying a technique called EAR statements to calm an upset person before attempting to engage them in any problem-solving discussion. EAR stands for Empathy, Attention and Respect. The technique can be practiced and used with any upset person to help bring calm to the situation. It can also be effective with people who have difficulties regulating their own emotions. Read more about EAR statements here.

Understanding the realities of what happens in our brains when we feel threatened allows us to strategically manage emotionally-charged situations. In my next post, I’ll share some tips and strategies for doing so.

Shifting how we engage with conflict takes know-how, effort and practice. Talk to us to explore engaging our training, facilitation, coaching, mediation and other services to help to improve how your organization engages with conflict.


[1] Harper, Gary. The Joy of Conflict Resolution. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2004, p. 68-70.

[2] Eddy, Bill and DiStefano, L. Georgi. It’s All Your Fault at Work. New York, USA: Unhooked Books, 2015, p. 27-28.

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