How to Prevent Your Next Fight From Snowballing Out of Control

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Scientist, Bruce Banner's (Eric Bana) alter ego, The Hulk, is unleashed  on the streets of San Francisco in Universal Studios movie "The Hulk." Photo ILM. THIS IMAGE IS FOR THE SUNDAY CALENDAR SNEAKS COVER FOR 5/5/03.
Photo: ILM

When you get in a fight with someone, a brutal, self-perpetuating logic takes hold. If things escalate, within minutes the fight is no longer about whatever substantive issue sparked it; rather, everything snowballs in a way that can be disheartening, if not downright scary. In Harvard Business Review, the facilitator and mediator Diane Musho Hamilton has a nice, mindfulness-informed guide to what happens to your body and brain when you’re angry — and some tips to slow things down. She explains that anger taps into deep evolutionary roots, and has a uniquely distorting effect on how we process information. 

As a result of the various physiological and neurological processes that automatically take hold when we’re engaged in conflict with someone, Hamilton writes, “Complex decision-making disappears, as does our access to multiple perspectives. As our attention narrows, we find ourselves trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the most safe: ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,’ even though we ordinarily see more perspectives.”

Which is bad. But there are ways around it. Hamilton lays out a simple three-step process for mitigating the worst effects of conflict-brain, for lack of a better term. They’re centered around stuff you might be familiar with if you’ve dabbled in mindfulness meditation: breathing, examining how your body is reacting to the present moment, and so on. The article is well worth a read, especially if you worry you might be in for a family squabble or two during the holidays ahead.