The Neuroscience of Conflict

What happens in our brains when we fight, argue and quarrel?

The Neuroscience of Conflict

Conflict exists when one person has a need of another person and that need is not
being met. Conflict between people is a normal, natural and inevitable part of life. If we
feel anxious, angry or threatened, our brains default to a “fight or flight” physiological

The study of the relationship between our nervous system and our brain is called
neuroscience. What happens in our brain when we sense conflict? When faced with
conflict, it’s good to know how the brain works so we can work to override negative
patterns based upon our experiences. (This is called “neuroplasticity,” and it’s the ability
to make new neural connections.)

When we become angry, the amyglada, part of the limbic system in our brain, is
Inundated with hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and testosterone. In effect, we
become “high” on conflict.

If we’re shown acknowledgment and feel that we’re heard, the front or neocortex part of
the brain, which is responsible for higher thinking and reasoning, is flooded with
serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine. These are hormones that are released when we
experience trust and respect.

When you recognize the initial stages of fight or flight. Dr. Kenneth Miller, Ph.D.,
suggests a pause. “Before you respond in a conversation, take a breath. Just a normal
simple breath.” Why does this work? First, Miller notes, it stops you from accidentally
interrupting whoever’s speaking. Second, the pause gives you a chance to reconsider
your own response. You might even decide to say nothing at all.

Once you have paused and taken a breath, use active listening techniques to help the
other person connect with his or her neocortex. Pay attention. Restate or paraphrase
what the other person has said. Summarize. Don’t interrupt. Empathize. Validate the
other person, indicating “I appreciate your willingness to talk about this difficult issue” or
“You seem angry about this situation.” Always respond respectfully.

Avoid fight or flight responses — genuine, active listening skills can be used the next
time you feel angry, to help diffuse conflict.