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Will Smith at the Oscars & High Conflict

I’ve been trying to understand the polarization that is infiltrating our society and recently purchased a book ‘High Conflict – Why we get trapped and how we get out’ by Amanda Ripley.  Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist for magazines such as The Atlantic and a New York Times bestselling author who has had some exposure to mediation skills.  Amanda talks about how smart individuals can get quickly drawn into high conflicts that negatively affect their lives and those around them.

Although Amanda’s book focused on long standing conflicts, I wondered about Will Smith’s response at the Oscar awards and if there was some possible connection with his behaviour and what draws individuals into high conflict.  She shares how ‘social pain’ or social rejection can cause conflict to explode.  She even uses the word humiliation – to reduce someone to a lower position in other’s eyes as one of the four conditions for a fire starter to speed up conflict.

Humiliation is a word I don’t usually hear others in conflict using but may accurately reflect what they are feeling along with words I might hear such as embarrassment or shame.  I know that the joke that Chris Rock shared was focused on Will Smith’s wife’s medical condition, alopecia, which causes unsightly hair loss.  That could certainly be seen as embarrassing and generate feelings of shame. His quick reaction in slapping Chris Rock was based on a flight/fight/freeze response which likely overcame him in the moment.

The Neuroscience movement has uncovered pieces of how our brains work and how they react in stressful circumstances.  Our fight/flight/freeze response has been studied and expanded to deeper knowledge of our nervous system and theories such as the Polyvagal theory.  This theory was introduced in 1994 by Stephen Porges and examines the role of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation, social connection and fear response.   One of the principles is Neuroception: in contrast to perception, a cognition without awareness, triggered by a stimulus such as danger or an emotional threat.  These perceived threats or humiliations can send us into our fight response as we saw with Will Smith’s actions.

This need for our brains to always be scanning for threats and to react instantly when even an emotional threat is sensed can create outbursts and take us quickly into conflict. This of course happens more often when we are under high stress and tend to have heightened scanning efforts.  I have been seeing more examples of this in workplaces over the past two years and even now as we manage more changes in adapting to a ‘new normal’ in our post-Covid restriction world.

So, what can we do to reduce high conflict?  Amanda indicates that we should strive to be unafraid of complexity and more curious than righteous.  The Polyvagal theory and neuroscience push us to think of what we need to feel grounded in the moment or in our safe space.  That may be as simple as taking a deep breath or feeling our feet on the floor.  Think about what you might need to remain curious and be in a learning mindset instead of a threat-based mindset.

We all need more conflict in our lives and our workplaces. Conflict can be good! Differing ideas and perspectives add to new creative solutions in our ever more complex environments.  It’s that unproductive conflict that never gets resolved that we want to limit. Employers can set up workplaces for productive conflict by thinking about what their employees might need to feel safe and stay in that curious frame of mind instead of getting pulled into high conflict.  Or better yet ask them!

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