I spend a lot of time thinking about how our emotions impact how we engage with conflict. I mean, have you ever found yourself churning over a situation with another person, thinking about your next interaction, and your mind is racing, your heart is beating faster and you feel sweaty and nothing has actually even happened yet?
Let me tell you about my dog, Stanley. Stanley is a big love-hound of a Great Dane. He is everyone’s friend, and if he isn’t your friend yet, he wants to be. At 175 pounds, Stanley has quite an imposing stature. Cue the comments: “nice horse – you should put a saddle on him.”
The small dogs that walk with other humans make different comments, which, translated into English sound like “whatever you are, you need to stay back or I’m going to beat you up.” Then, inevitably, the human says, “oh Mittens, that dog could eat you for breakfast!”
Note: Great Danes do not eat other dogs for breakfast. Or for any other meal for that matter.
Stanley gets two walks a day, just about every day. As much as Stanley is a creature of habit, so are his humans – and so, invariably, we end up walking the same routes fairly routinely. This means we pass many houses in our neighbourhood several times a week. In those houses, or the yards of those houses, are other dogs who see Stanley out for a walk, and out of boredom, jealousy or sheer intimidation of his size, bark and bark as he approaches and passes by.
Stanley is smarter than I am when it comes to these interactions. After a couple of times of dogs losing their minds on us from behind a fence or window, he memorizes the location of this house for all time and anticipates the freak-out before it happens. Stanley’s hackles get raised. The fur on the back of his neck stands on end. His step gets jumpy. His breathing gets loud and chuffy. His head and tail are up and he is on total alert. At this point, his fight or flight instinct has been invoked. Whatever the dog might do on the other side of the fence, Stanley is ready for action.
When Stanley’s hackles get raised, I often have cause to think about the interactions with people when I have anticipated conflict – those times when my own hackles get raised. Before the interaction even happens, my mind races, my heart rate increases, and my fight or flight instinct is dialed right up. I might even have a sense of dread.
When I’m like this, it might not matter what the other person says or does. I’m much more likely to take it the wrong way, to feel hurt, to fire back with a jab and escalate conflict. Certainly, it’s obvious that I’m not in problem-solving mode. I know for sure I’m not the only one this happens to.
We need to understand the role our emotions play in how we engage with other people. When we are upset, it is not a good time to have a productive conversation about something difficult. Sometimes we wind ourselves up and make ourselves more upset beforehand, and come into the interaction with our hackles already raised, ready to fight or flee.
You’ll be happy to know that I am no longer caught by surprise at those key houses, or when a scrappy small dog is approaching on the sidewalk, because Stanley has taught me to anticipate the worst case reaction and to lead us across the street beforehand.
I can use a similar strategy when I’m feeling chuffy myself, and steer away from an interaction I am anticipating will be difficult – until I am in a calmer headspace. I can also engage the strategies outlined in the previous post to bring calm to myself, to the other person and to the situation.