Skip to content

January 1, 2021

Conflict: The Value of Time

When in the middle of a conflict, it’s too easy to get swept up in the rising tide of emotions and believe that the conflict must be resolved immediately. Our brains are evolutionarily wired to focus on the biggest threat, and a conflict is a threat. While it may not be a physical threat to us, the threat to our ego that we might be wrong is still very real. Our body’s response to a threat is a cocktail of chemicals that can make it hard to think.

Physiological Impact

If you perceive danger, in an instant, your body is going to release a set of hormones into your bloodstream to prepare it to respond – immediately. This so-called “fight or flight” response has been known for ages and the lead chemical in this cocktail is adrenaline. It’s a part of a set of signals to shut down the long-term processes – and thinking – and make all energy reserves available for addressing the current threat. (If you want to know more about the physiology of the threat or stress response, see Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)

Our immune system shuts down, as does our digestive system, but that’s not the most disturbing and challenging aspect. What happens is we narrow our focus and stop looking for alternatives and solutions. (For more, see the book Drive.) In short, our body’s own approach to the stress of an eminent threat to survival creates challenges when the threats we’re facing are more psychic than physical.

While there are many chemicals released when we’re facing danger, adrenaline is the key actor in our inability to consider alternatives, and it has a half-life of about 20 minutes. That means creating space and time in a conflict may be just what the doctor ordered.

The Science of Relationships

John Gottman is famous for his ability to predict with 93% accuracy the ability for a couple to stay together after just three minutes. It’s three minutes of fighting, but with that, he can tell signs of whether they’ll make it or not. (See The Science of Trust for more.) One of his recommendations for improving the odds is to slow things down and more rationally consider the situation. This advice helps in part because of the decay of the adrenaline but also because it allows you to focus on what’s important.

One important point about the additional time and space to be created during or after a conflict is to not rehearse the conflict in your mind. Our brains are incapable of determining whether the threat is real and now or whether it’s something old and imaginary. This is why, while watching an action film or a horror movie, our pulse can jump sky high – our brains can’t make the distinction between where we are and what’s on the screen.

Let It Breathe

The advice, should we find ourselves feeling physically or ideologically threatened is to wait for the chemicals to dissipate. However, the advice is equally good when facing conflicts that seem less immediate and for which the reasoning is complex. Sometimes, a conflict isn’t really a conflict at all. It’s an artifact that the other person hasn’t had a chance to think about all the information provided to them to come around to our way of thinking.

As a result, sometimes the best thing to do to get a new idea supported is to allow the powers that be an opportunity to consider the proposal and decide that our approach is better than the old existing ways of doing things.

Either way, slowing a conflict down is good advice for any stage of disagreement.


To see these tips in video format, sign up here.

Book Review-Change Better: Survive – and Thrive – During Change at Work and Throughout Life

A surprising amount has been written about change. It’s been written from an organizational context, a personal context, and a societal context. The underlying connection is that all change is personal change. To get our organizations and societies to change, we must change personally as well. This lies at the heart of Jeanenne LaMarsh’s book, Change Better: Survive – and Thrive – During Change at Work and Throughout Life.

Life is Change

The book was written in 2010 – a decade ago. However, the language could be appropriate today even without LaMarsh understanding the scope of her statements. “No matter who you are, the skill to deal with constant change needs to become a permanent part of your life.” The change velocity then was more than it had ever been in the history of human civilization, and it’s even faster now. Instead of measuring change in generations, we measure change in decades, years, months – and even minutes.

Each of us craves stability and certainty. It makes our prediction-engine brains comfortable to know that they can do their jobs. However, we never had certainty. There were changing weather patterns before we could predict the weather. There were floods and fires that would wipe out entire towns. Despite the knowledge that certainty is an illusion, we cling on to it.

To thrive today, we’ve got to let go of the quaint belief that we can know everything or plan for everything, and instead we must build a capacity within ourselves to accept – and even welcome – change. We need to learn how to surf the waves of change instead of being crushed by their relentless nature.

The Transition Delta

What William Bridges calls the neutral zone (see Managing Transitions), LaMarsh calls the delta zone. The Greek letter delta is used to signify change. It’s a place of confusion where every decision that might have previously been automatic must be reevaluated and considered in the context of the new world that we live in. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow provided a model for cognition that includes two systems. Most of the time, he explains, we walk around using “System 1,” which is automatic. Switching into “System 2” requires more energy and therefore is a less desirable state. However, in conscious change, we must constantly reengage “System 2” and therefore consume more energy even if the energy is consumed through thinking rather than action.

Thinking Is Not Doing

While it’s true that thinking about something doesn’t make it so, it’s equally true that thinking can be work. In the United States, we have a bias against thinking being “real” work. We can look at the biology and neurology that indicate we’re consuming energy, but somehow, to the protestant work ethic, thinking doesn’t feel like getting anything done.

Of course, we can take Benjamin Franklin’s admonishment, “If you fail to plan, you are planning fail,” as an indication that we must do some planning work to be successful, but that doesn’t make it “feel” more like work. Athletes are taught to visualize their success to enhance their performance. We know that all but the motor neurons fire when someone is visualizing their performance – so they’re rehearsing it. Even patients with amputated arms are taught to visualize to allow them to help them cope with the loss of their limb. (See Descartes’ Error.)

We must fight our bias towards action and moderate our action with our capacity to plan. If we can’t do planning in conjunction with our action, we’re destined to fail.

All Change is Personal

Change Better is squarely focused on the personal level of change. Not that it’s about changing yourself personally but rather it’s about connecting what you need to change personally to help the organization’s change be successful. It’s filled with worksheets of questions that are designed to improve your ability to see the reasons for the need to change, the exact nature of what the change will look like for you personally, and the path to reach this new place.

These worksheets are available from the LaMarsh web site at I’d encourage you to check them out to learn how to Change Better.

Recent Posts

Public Speaking