Trauma interferes with our ability to manage conflict.
- Perhaps you primarily lash out or fight back.
- Perhaps you run away – looking for a place to hide until the moment passes.
- Perhaps you freeze in place – surrendered to whatever is going to happen.
What we call fight, flight or freeze happens to all of us. Some of us have just one mode. Others can cycle through them depending on the context. Me – I am a freezer most of the time. Before I fight; before I step aside or run away, I give in.
Here is an example. Long ago I sprinted to grab onto a rope swing that hung from a towering oak. My intention was to swing out and drop and roll onto the grassy slope below as I had done many times before. The young men in my neighborhood did this regularly as a contest for distance. This time the rope snapped right at the apex of my swing and I pummeled face down into the slope from about 10 feet in the air. I did not brace myself (fight). I did not scream (fright). Rather, I instinctively closed my eyes and went limp. The result was broken glasses and a split lip, but nothing worse.
There was no time to think that day, just the split second to react. These reactions are God’s gifts to us when we are in danger. These gifts become problems, however, if we are triggered to respond by fighting, fleeing or freezing, when we are in an everyday disagreement with someone. It is good for us to recognize when our reaction is stronger than the situation requires, and to learn to modify our behavior. Conflict, especially when we learn that we disagree with someone, is NOT a traumatic experience. A previous traumatic experience might make us think it is, however.
Some folks have taught themselves to breathe, to sing Row Row Row your Boat (silently), to take a sip of water, or to ask questions before they respond. This is a means to get them out of their primitive brain and to return to the ability to think—to move from irrationality to being rational. Others come to understand they need to dig further into why they respond the way they do – often linked to earlier traumatic experience that somehow echoes what is happening now.
Learning to respond appropriately to conflict – reasoned, prayerful, patient, dignified, thoughtful and respectful conversation – is important for us as we live in families, in workplaces and volunteer communities, and as neighbors.
What is your primary way of responding out of trauma when you’ve experienced it?
What might you do to approach conflict as an everyday matter, rather than as something traumatic?
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