Sunday, September 27, 2015

Conflict Cycle (get coffee, it's a long read)

No reflection on your sex life, but every night you go to bed with a human, a monkey and a lizard.

These are gross oversimplifications of 'parts' of your brain. Basically, the model is your rational ‘human brain’ is your neo-cortex. Your social/emotional/tribal ‘monkey brain’ is your limbic system. Your survival/autonomic functioning ‘lizard brain’ is your hind brain.[1] Each of these is necessary for human survival. They've been doing a great job for millions of years in a world filled with things trying to eat us. 

We have survived these hostile conditions by being social primates. Being in a group and relying on each other is intrinsic to our psychology. That brings us to our monkey brain. This is the socio-emotional part of our brains. The part that wires us to function in those social-survival groups. Families, tribes, clans, cultures and nations, they're all survival groups. In a daring feat of intellectual prowess, I call the social primate aspect of our personality, the Monkey. (Next I'll awe you by showing you water is wet.) 

Our social behavior and concerns are the realm of the Monkey. This especially means both the cause of conflicts and our behavior during such clashes. In the simplest of terms, the lizard brain handles physical danger, the monkey brain handles social and emotional 'threats.' Which, unless you've been chased by a sabertooth tiger lately, is the majority of what you're going to be dealing with. So relax, the danger isn't 'real' -- despite what your Monkey is screaming at you.[2]
Basically, when you are emotional and in an argument (or fight), the monkey brain takes over. In this state, the Monkey guides your actions, feelings, words and even your perception of reality (perceived reality). Your brain is bathed in different chemicals and rational thought is impaired. Seriously, think of a stoned Monkey driving the bus and you're not far off (Especially with a paranoid buzz, because the Monkey is imagining all kinds of worst case scenarios and horrible loss of face if it doesn't respond. That becomes your 'reality.'[3])

Here's a bit of a newsflash: As much as you might think the fight is about you, it's not.

It's about group dynamics, functionality and staying together. Mostly what you are fighting for is how things are going to be done around here

This applies no matter how selfish, altruistic or cooperative the participants' goals are. In order for a group to survive there must be standards, rules, hierarchy, a division of labor and resources and roles. How these are addressed, who is doing what and is in what role is less important than these issues are addressed.

That's what your Monkey is concerned about and that is what it will be fighting for when it's driving the bus. Your emotions, pride and your Monkey's 'psychic ability' (to know exactly what the other Monkey 'meant by that') are all distractions to keep you from seeing this larger, underlying social primate agenda.

If you believe you are in control of yourself, you won't feel the need to exercise self-control.
            -- RM

Many people are afraid of conflict. Personally, I put a greater emphasis on the results. By this I mean both the result of engaging in conflict and the result of not doing so. And, yes, both have consequences. The reason I emphasize results is because those are the consequences with which you have to live. 

This applies to any unacceptable results. Yes, there could be negative results arising from being too ham-handed from 'winning.'  But there are also negative consequences of not standing up for yourself − because you tell yourself you’re afraid of conflict. 

But wait, doing the ‘right thing’ and avoiding conflict shouldn’t have negative consequences! "Marc, what’s wrong with you for saying that? Everyone knows conflict is bad! Look at the results! Meetings with the HR (human resources) department or boss at work, filing for divorce, filling out forms for a new place to live because you split up, a new job application, filling out incident reports for later use in court, being arrested, going to trial, being in sued in civil court. That's what comes from conflict, doncha know?"


All of these are the results we supposedly fear from conflict. That's why we avoid it. Or we tell ourselves we do. The truth is a lot more complicated.

In defense of this position and the complexity of truth: If conflict is mismanaged and allowed to escalate out of control, all those bad things can be the results.

But is that always true? Does each and every conflict end up there?

No, and we know that.

At least our human brain does.

But a freaked out, emotional and screeching Monkey is distracting us from remembering that. Much of what we claim ‘we fear’ is actually excuses. And those excuses hide our real fears -- and motivations -- from us.

Such fears are subconscious, primal, irrational and − if we’re honest with ourselves − pretty stupid and selfish. Fears we want to pretend we’re too good to have while they are directing our behavior.  What are these fears? Fear of humiliation, shame, losing status or hurt pride. Fear of how we will look to others and imaginary consequences. In short, monkey brain fears.

These fears come from very primitive parts of our brains. Parts we are not normally conscious of; nor are we aware how strongly they direct our behavior. Using these fears, the Monkey seizes control and plunges us into discord faster than we can think.

I'm not joking about that 'faster than we can think' part. Your conscious/human thought process is about as fast as the conversation inside your head. While it is great at solving problems (crossword puzzles, sudoku, etc.) it's not going to win any awards for speed. Meanwhile the other parts -- which I've heard described as backward looking, pattern seeking animals -- have already decided what the right answer is.  They compare the current situation to past situations and know what to do. And -- until you learn how to break this habit -- that's what they're going to tell you to do. This even if part of you know it's the wrong answer. So faster than conscious thought, you open your mouth and out pops a Monkey answer. (Learning to break this habit is beyond the scope of this article -- but know it can be done.)

But what’s most interesting is how − at the same time the Monkey puts us into dispute – it increases our loathing of conflict. 

I mean, if we don’t fight, we’ll be humiliated. If we do fight, we risk losing and being disgraced even more.

In short, we’re hitting both the gas and the brake. Unfortunately, we’re often a little slow on the brake, and the gas pedal wins. When that happens, we find ourselves deep in clashes often before we know what’s happening.

A good manager doesn't try to eliminate conflict; he tries to keep it from wasting the energies of his people. If you're the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong - that's healthy.
                                 -- Robert Townsend

In modern society, we’ve been conditioned to believe conflict is bad. This has had some seriously negative unintended consequences. One of which is we don’t know how to behave in disputes anymore. In pursuit of ending conflict, what was a learned set of behaviors fed to our ancestors along with their mother's milk has been lost.
This ignorance is hurting us. 

First, we aren’t taught there are ‘rules of conflict.’ ("Wait. What? There are rules?")

Second, we aren't taught what the rules are for the environment or why we need to follow them. (Don't say this to your spouse.)

Third, we’ve lost the knowledge how to safely engage in disputes. Yes, I know it's shocking, but conflict can be safe. (Remember, rules?)

Fourth, we're not taught how to cope with conflict. Because we aren’t taught how to cope with conflict, we’re more likely to be traumatized by it. (Then this trauma is pointed to as proof of how 'bad' conflict is.)

Fifth, our ‘civilized’ fears of discord allow us to be bullied and intimidated by those who know how to turn our fears against us. (Often to the point of our fear of conflict allows us to be abused.)
Not a winning strategy, that. 

So how do you manage conflict to get the best results? 

We can start by knowing the conflict cycle. Then it all becomes a lot less scary. You're no longer lost in the woods. The conflict cycle is a map and compass. Yes, you are still going to have to walk out, but now ... well you have a map and a compass.

The conflict cycle is ‘scripted’ behavior that is oriented on the Monkey’s agenda of keeping the troupe together and functioning. (It’s a caveman thing). Remember, most conflicts are a squabble over how the group is going to run. That’s what you’re fighting for. 

Even better, once you understand the cycle, you’ll be far better at ensuring any ‘results’ of conflict are positive. 

Basically, a conflict inside a group can be understood as "Bang! Bang! Kiss, kiss."

Starting at the bottom go up, clockwise. There everyone is just tootling along, and everything is fine (doot, dedoot, dedoot). Well, along comes a problem. Instead of staying in our human brain, fixing the problem, and going back to doot, dedoot, the Monkey hijacks the issue.  and makes it about our status, how someone treats us, our little duck feelings getting hurt, our self-esteem or this person’s lack of respect toward us. 

In short, we personalize the problem. Once we do that, we’re in our Monkey Brain and following its agenda.

Another thing we do in this problem stage is rejection. Most commonly we either reject the behavior we think of as the problem (e.g., "you don't treat me that way") or we reject the solution. A solution proposed by the other person to handle the perceived problem (e.g., put the toilet seat down). In creating a self-eating watermelon, the latter is often done by personalizing it (e.g., "Don't you tell me what to do.") No matter what strategy we do -- whether we dig our heels in or go on the attack -- we're rejecting something or someone in this stage.

From the moment we personalize it, we are no longer trying to fix the actual problem, we are on monkey scripts (subconscious, predetermined, habitual, predictable, sometimes ritualized patterns of behaviors). When we're on monkey scripts, we’re subconsciously fighting over how the group is going to be run.

Stop and think about that. It’s both important and – no matter how much you think it’s about you – it’s really about group dynamics. Try to think of a conflict you were in with someone that wasn’t about things were going to be around here (even if was a 'you don't treat me like that). Go ahead, I dare you. 

At the same time I say this, I'll also say something else. It's really easy for the Monkey to overlay its agenda over the real issue and distract us from what we're actually doing -- for both good and bad. We may be fighting over group dynamics, but we're often doing a really selfish and has job. And we don't even know it.

What's both odd and part of the reason this is hard to see is the tactics we use. One tactic is the Monkey personalizes it  (e.g., "You don't talk to me like that" or "that hurt my feelings). The other tactic is it denies what it's doing by taking the moral high ground. ("I'm not fighting out of hurt pride, I'm fighting for what's right". "Yeah, sure you are.") Either one keeps us from recognizing what our Monkey is doing to escalate the conflict.

The next step is threat displays. 

This is where things heat up. Depending on how you’re socialized, this stage could be yelling, screaming, waving your arms around and even threatening to hit someone. Or it could be as subtle as your boss asking, “Do you like working here?” No matter how it’s done, both parties are sending messages of “don’t mess with me! See how serious I am about this?”

Threat displays (also called display aggression) is both a field of study unto itself and way beyond the scope of this article. But related to the conflict cycle know three fascinating aspects of how we use them. 

First and foremost, they are communication. We are communicating the threat of physical violence. Threat displays are not pre-attack indicators. They do not say "I am attacking." They say, "I might (especially if you don't change your behavior)."   

Human beings are amazingly non-violent animals (at least physically). While physical attacks do happen, they are the exception not the rule… and overwhelmingly a result of threat displays failing to achieve the desired results. Again, threat displays are mostly about communication.

Second the Monkey is extremely susceptible to these messages. Until you learn how to break the habit of letting the Monkey response be your response these signals are going to trigger you. Somebody threatens you, you threaten back. Someone insults you, you insult back. Someone hurts your feelings you're going to hurt theirs. This is how the Monkey operates. It has an obsession with keeping score, how is just a matter of style. But breaking the habit of threatening back is a good way to get off the escalation part of the conflict cycle.

Third, while we flip out when they are done to us, we deny, justify and excuse our own threat displays, insults, verbal violence, spite and hostility. "I'm a good person. I don't do that sort of thing. You asshole!" While this blindspot protects our self-image, it also is how we give ourselves permission to engage in behavior we know is hurtful and unacceptable. But since the Monkey is protecting its feelings it tells us the other person 'deserves it.' As such, it's okay to hurt this person who has wronged us. As long as we're in this frame of mind, we're going to keep on participating and escalating the conflict as we seek to 'win.'

Then comes the tipping point. 

Now this could be as simple as you getting a visit from the ‘Angel of Duh!’ and realizing you're acting like an out-of-control monkey (embarrassing, but actually the best way). The most common way we reach the tipping point is you've realized this game of escalating commitment isn't worth the monkey prize you're vying for. What's more important, keeping your relationship or the position of the toilet seat? What's more important, being right or getting fired?   

I wish I could say this is the Human kicking the Monkey out of the driver's seat, but it's often not. Way more often it's while we still want to win, we don’t want the situation to go physical. Even the Monkey is catching on that things aren't going to turn out well if this specific course of action is maintained. In more extreme cases, it could be someone knocking you on your butt with a left hook. And you thinking, “I think he’s a little more committed about this than I am.” 

No matter how you get to the ‘tipping point,’ it’s you deciding you don’t want things to get worse. At least it's hopefully you and not the Monkey. That's because the Monkey will often change strategies, but not goals.

If an explosion is your first indication that something is wrong, your warning signals
 are set too high. Or they've been ignored until it's too late
                 -- MM

When I ask, “Where do you think things are most likely to go wrong with this process?” most people answer on the upswing (Bang Bang part). The truth is, most things get wonky on the part we’re now heading into (Kiss Kiss). While we can wing it on the upswing, the back end is far more ritualized. Improvisation and trying to get a last lick in is where things go wrong during this part of the cycle.

The use of the term ‘submission/dominance signal’ can rub people the wrong way. Well, tough. If we’re talking about
  • an issue between you and your boss (and you want to stay employed),
  • if it’s between you and a cop (and you don’t want to get arrested),
  • if it’s between you and a 250-pound biker (and you don’t want to get your ass kicked)
  • if it's between an adult and a child or
  • if it’s between you and a teacher, etc., etc., …
then dominance/submission are the proper terms.

If it’s between you and your spouse, okay, it’s a slightly different dynamic. Same goes between you and your friends and other people you care about. But often, it really is about ‘do it this way or else’ – even with your relations and kids.

The dominance/submission stage is easier to understand if we talk about it as: Throwing up your hands and saying, “Alright, we’ll do it that way!” Or it being accepted when you put your foot down and say "That's it! We're going to do it this way." This stage demonstrates you are no longer interested in taking the conflict to a higher level. It signals you are now more interested in moving into the conflict resolution stage. 

This is different than the tipping point because a 'decision made' is not the same as a 'decision communicated.' 

This stage is about communication. This is a subtle, but important, distinction. Because, as much as the Monkey believes it’s psychic, it’s not. You do have to communicate. The nature of the messages you are sending has to be deliberately -- if not consciously -- changed.

Among actual equals this is less about dominance/submission and more about providing face saving exits for both of you. I use the term 'actual equals' because although we can be overweening in our insistence that we-are-oh-so-egalitarian, we really aren't. We routinely deal with more situations and circumstances where there is a hierarchy, social order and power imbalance. I'll give you four examples. Customer, employee, business owner and a corporation with millions of customers. Your 'power' as a customer changes with who you're dealing with. 

Very seldom will you be in truly egalitarian circumstances -- and when you are, the dynamics of this stage change. Starting with among equals attempting to display dominance is a disaster. If you attempt to treat an equal as an inferior or they do the same to you, it will evoke a negative response. This is why it is critical for equals to present a face saving exit for both parties to communicate the desire to wind things down. 

But as stated, equality is rare. So usually the message has to be "I'm not pushing it anymore" to the dominant (or at least the person willing to go further). But this is very much a two way street of communication.

A key element at this stage is the dominant showing it is safe for the other to back down. Again, communication. Many situations go on because of fear. Fear that it isn't safe to back off. Fear that trying will result in punishment from the dominant.  While that might be the case, overwhelmingly at this point the threat of violence is past. Again, the focus of communication has changed. From the dominant position, the message is 'it is safe to stop behaving this way.'

At this stage it's very tempting for the person being communicated to want to huff and puff. If the other person is trying to communicate they're backing off, DON'T huff and puff.  Here's why. The fear of being punished for daring to have crossed you is very real. Often because there are people who will think submission is permission to punish. Here's the hitch, it's often projection. It often seems that the people who are most afraid to back down because of punishment are the same ones who -- if the roles are reversed -- will be the fastest to punish. In fact, this fear is why taking extra steps to communicate it's safe is incumbent on the dominant.

If you're the person who is trying to back down and the other person huffs and puffs, DON'T listen to your Monkey. It's going to be screaming you're about to be attacked (punished) for backing down. Like I said, some final hurrah huffing and puffing is common. Let your Lizard decide if it's just final huffing and puffing or if the other person is taking the opportunity to punish you for daring to cross him. (One is winding down the other is winding up -- it's very obvious difference if you look for it.)

So far it looks like all the bad behavior is on the part of the dominant. Not true. Equally bad news is another form of punishment by the person backing down. This is sending a false signal of submission and then when the person lets his guard down, ZAP, getting in the last lick.   OR, for the moment backing off, but with a "I'll get you later" agenda. Far worse though is false backing down (which we'll get to in a bit).

This signaling stage and the next are where most situations go horribly wrong, but again, we’ll get to that in a bit. Let’s keep on following the cycle to its conclusion first.
Now comes a critical juncture, ‘acceptance.’ 

In the previous stage, peace overtures have been made; signals have been sent. But they have to be recognized, received and accepted. Like the difference between not to wanting fight anymore and communicating that to the other person, acceptance alone isn't enough. It has to be communicated and it's a two way street. Think of it as one side waves a white flag and the other counter signals by raising or lowering the rifle's muzzles. 

Why is this important? Because acceptance signals show that the conflict is functionally over. There is going to be no more attacking one another, no more arguing and – most important – that it is safe to quit for both parties. A treaty of nonaggression has been agreed to by both parties.

Reconciliation/resolution is the real Kiss Kiss part. 

And, like the previous two stages it's easy to screw up. Because up until then, we’ve been negotiating. Reconciliation is where things get really ritualized. Both parties must make gestures to show no hard feelings. More specifically, they both demonstrate that they’re still a group.

Not doing this will leave this fight as unfinished business. That's a recipe for things will light up again. 

This is where many 'bad' bosses fall down with conflict management, but other people fail too. But let's demonstrate it by talking bosses. I have a saying: If there are seven stages to a conflict, a bad boss only does five of them.

Even chimpanzees, after a fight, will bring each other gifts, groom each other and comfort one another to show that everything is okay. But many people, who apparently aren’t smarter than chimps, will insist on pride, continued outrage and the belief that it is the OTHER Monkey who was in the wrong. It’s up to the other monkey to make up with them (read grovel).

Reconciliation is important because -- if you don’t complete the cycle with make up gestures and communication that things are alright between you – discord will begin anew. And it usually will be with more vengeance and outrage because someone violated the cycle and betrayed you. This is how feuds and vendettas start. You don’t slap away the hand that is offering the peace laurel.

Using the bad boss as an example. He (or she) might not overtly punish (e.g., firing or bad assignments). But, if instead there's an expectation for the employee to display submission by rolling over and piddling on him/herself, that is humiliating. And that by extension is a form of punishment. In this abuse of power, it's all on the employee to make up. The problem is twofold. One: That isn't how bang bang, kiss kiss works. Two: Often such poor bosses also heap punishment details on top of this demand for the employee self-abasement.

Remembering that this, like all the other stages is a two way street requiring very specific communication. Failing to do so is a great way to lose friends, lose jobs, estrange yourself from family and, of course, get divorced. Those nasty ‘results’ kind of things.

A subcategory of this stage is resolution.

This is determining how the original problem will be dealt with. This, even if it means the status quo remains the same. Sometimes -- without having the egos involved --it's sitting down and figuring out a new way of doing things or giving reasons why things have to remain unchanged.  Sometimes it's a tacit agreement of 'Let's not use that tactic in the future.'  Other times, things won't be resolved and there's going to be another fight over this in the future. 

That last is why resolution doesn't have it's own stage in the conflict cycle. It's actually about what's going to be done about the problem, not the Monkey issues behind the conflict. While savvy players will put it in, not everyone is a savvy player. In fact, many people make the mistake of trying to 'fix the problem' in the early stages of the wind down. Address the Monkey issues first, then worry about the problem.

Only after this cycle is completed do things return to functional, and the group carries on.

I've sort of mentioned -- repeatedly -- that most people screw up in the back half of the cycle. There are a lot of ways (we'll run past some in a second). But recognize that often one mistake leads to another, and everyone heats up again. Remember emotions are contagious, so too it seems are mistakes. But I'd like to give you a simple graphic to understand the results of not following the ritualized steps of the back half.

Notice that the re-escalation exceeds where the original tipping point was. This isn't just important, it's ugly. Often to the point of being physically dangerous. If not that, there's a good chance you've just made an enemy and bought yourself a vendetta. The why takes a little explaining.

Just because you’ve passed the tipping point (where you’ve decided you don’t want to keep escalating up to violence), doesn’t mean your Monkey has given up.

Read that again, it's that important.

If you have an overwhelming urge to ‘win,’ that’s your Monkey. It will keep your mouth going aggressively long after you should be on the resolution part of the cycle. And that’s where the back end of the cycle often goes sideways.

It’s important here to mention something else. Of all human behavior that can elicit negative responses, betrayal will get you punished the worst. Nothing infuriates people more. Keep that in mind. Because when you break this cycle, the kneejerk response by most people is to consider it betrayal.

When someone is offering you the opportunity to safely back off from a battle, he or she is taking a chance

I'm going to frame the following in terms of physical violence, but adjust it to the level you normally operate at. By sending the submission/face saving signal, you indicate you aren’t willing to take it physical. Realistically, what you are saying is you won’t attack/challenge/disrespect that person any more. 

They, in turn, ease off the throttle, too. Think of this as lowering their guard in the name of peace, a sign of trust. Earlier I referred to white flags and moving the rifle muzzle. That's the chance they're taking. In the process, they’re saying they’ll stop attacking, too.

If you sucker punch them, it’s a betrayal.

It’s easier to understand this behavior in physical terms, but it happens verbally and emotionally all the time. Someone just has to get that last zing in to ‘even the score.’ It not only hurts and is a betrayal, but your attack will cause the situation to explode again. That's the escalation past the original tipping point in the last graphic.

That same Monkey, who got you into the conflict, can make it much worse for you if you allow it to keep going after the tipping point. If, after you decide you aren’t willing to go physical (tipping point), but still verbally attack during the cool down phase, it will be seen – by the other person’s Monkey -- as a betrayal.

It will be treated as such. And, rightfully so.

In what should be the calm down, reconciliation stage, some people ‘need’ to get the last word, throw a final insult, voice a parting shot, get in those snide, contemptuous and sniping comments or – in a less obvious example – still justify ‘why they were right in what they did.’  Another bundle of laughs is the teenage eye roll mixed with whatever. Which is obnoxious enough from a teen, but really infuriating from another adult (even if it's phrased as 'fine!')

ALL of these indicate the Monkey is still driving the bus.

That person is not only violating the conflict cycle, but demonstrating his Monkey is still on the fight. Worse, they are telling the other person’s Monkey that the issue isn’t settled and that they will be a problem in the future. That’s because a pissed off Monkey is an untrustworthy Monkey. This fight isn’t over, and it will come back at you again. 

Is it any wonder this violating the ritual of the wind down elicits such a negative and extreme response? Like I said, it’s easier to explain these violations in terms of physical violence, but it also applies to work and relationships. It's easy to do because you're still going to be adrenalized and cranked up from the conflict. You may want to let it go, but if your Monkey isn't satisfied yet, it might just try to sabotage things to get that last chance at 'winning.'

Winding down a conflict is largely knowing when to tell your Monkey to back off before you get fired or do irreparable damage to your relationship. More than that, it's being able to actually do it.

The rest of this article will cover some points and details about managing conflict and the cycle. Again, although you aren't likely to end up with things going this far, I'll frame it in terms of physical violence. I do this because these concepts are easier to see in the extreme.

First off, did you know that overwhelmingly violence comes with instructions on how to avoid it? 

It’s true. So does most conflict incidentally, but often people have a problem understanding that what they're doing may not be physical violence, but it is verbal and emotional violence. So let's look at how they can change from one to another. 

For example, when someone tells you to “shut up or I am going to kick your ass,” he is not, I repeat NOT, asking for you to mention his sexual practices with his mother. 

But your monkey brain -- deeply involved in threat displays and fixated on preserving its status (if not ‘winning’), will tell you ignoring the instructions is the ‘right thing’ to do. How dare he tell you what to do! While we're at it, how dare he threaten you! You'll hurt him back with your words. That's the right thing to do! I’ll show him! 

Where it reaches the apex of self-absorption is how the Monkey will blame the other person for becoming more aggressive after you mentioned his testicles on his mother's chin. He's not supposed to react to my it's-not-aggression-because-I'm-upset with more aggression. He's supposed to be hurt. He's supposed to run away crying. That's why you said it. 

In case you haven’t guessed, the Monkey is real good at self-justifying its bad behavior. But it’s even better at stirring things up and then bailing out on you -- leaving you to deal with the negative results. There are some people so under the Monkey's control they never realize they've crossed a line -- including even after they've been hit, (they freak out more). But this is rarer than you think. More commonly the Monkey is famous for -- in its anger -- creating messes and then leaving you to clean up. The problem is the damage has already been done. For example after you've spit in the face of a biker and six more show up, trying to apologize your way out of it is too little, too late …

Keep that in mind next time you’re thinking about mentioning someone’s mother during a fracas or getting in that last dig -- especially during the ritualized de-escalation stage of the cycle. Also, if you want to be good at managing conflict, train yourself not to react when someone's freaked out Monkey is throwing these zings and potshots.[4]
When it comes to avoiding physical violence, during the upward escalation part of the cycle, you really need to start letting yourself hear what the person is telling you. Not the threat, but the other option. Consider doing that instead of listening to your Monkey tell you that you HAVE to do the direct opposite. That breaks you out of escalating the cycle. Now you can either leave or start the de-escalation process. See, here's a problem. The Monkey doesn't see its actions as escalation. It's only looking at them from its agenda. The Monkey not only makes us deaf, but it goads us on out of fear of status loss, pride, anger, revenge and the insidious desire to ‘win.’ That’s really the big problem. 

Most people think it’s the fear of punishment that keeps them from backing down.
There’s some validity to that. The truth is there are a good number of people who don’t know how to ‘win’ graciously. Such people often break the rules of the conflict cycle by demanding punishment and penance from those who have dared challenge them. While nobody likes punishment, there's a big concern of the capriciousness of the punisher and that he won't stop.

But let's stop projecting and look at the person who is 'afraid.'

While excessive punishment is a possibility, using it as an excuse not to back down gives us self-permission to stay a pissed off, biting Monkey.  (So too does the "Why do I have to …?" and "I have a right to…" rhetoric). It's also been my experience that the people who are most afraid of capricious and excessive punishment are themselves likely to do it if they find themselves in the dominant position. But the worst news of all is the people who fear punishment the most are the ones who are likely to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This comes back to the betrayal issue. Realistically, it wasn’t until that last dig they had to throw in to ‘even the score’ that the other Monkey decided to punish them. In the thousands of conflicts I’ve been involved in and witnessed, overwhelmingly this betrayal of the script is what provokes retribution. Someone taking your submission as a green light to punish is more the minority. Someone sending a submission signal and then betraying the cycle with a last dig to ‘even the score’ is far, far more common.

Fear not those who argue,
but those who dodge
               -- Dale Carnegie

I also want tell you about a common misunderstanding during this process. That is the perception if the dominant starts huffing and puffing about having been challenged he’s going to try to punish you. 

It looks like he might attack again, but odds are he won’t. Think of a gorilla beating his chest and making a lot of noise to prove what a stud he is. Also, don’t be confused by the gender reference, women do this chest beating, too. The tactics are just different.

There will usually be some chest thumping by the dominant to reinforce authority. Mostly it’s a matter of style. Some are loud and obvious, others aren’t. It can be as subtle as "Now that that's settled" to barking "Don't you ever cross me again!" Remember the other person is excited and adrenalized too.

Having said that, there’s a line between chest thumping and being overly aggressive. And it is a line a lot of inexperienced people cross.

Realize that conflict is usually negotiation done at a higher volume. It is incumbent on the winner to start lowering the volume. That's because if you have someone, who is already concerned about punishment for having dared to challenge you, and you get all big, bad and threatening after they've backed off, they have no reason to go on backing off. It’s not safe for them to do so. 

If they feel threatened by too big a dominance display, they’ll go on the attack again. This is another way things can light up again. (And it's part of why the conflict cycle is designed as a two party process. There are expectations and responsibilities on both sides.

The back end of the conflict cycle is a delicate process. A delicate process and still pissed off Monkeys don’t really make a winning combination. 

It takes a mature person to take control of his or her Monkey and guide the cycle to completion. This includes knowing when to ignore little mistakes, like snide comments (meant to sooth that person’s bruised ego), and ham handed, verbal dominance displays. When the process is correctly guided, the conflict is resolved and everyone is happy.

The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We live in denial of what we do, even what we think. We do this because we're afraid. We fear we will not find love, and when we find it we fear we'll lose it. We fear that if we do not have love we will be unhappy.
               -- Richard Bach

In closing, there is one more thing I want to mention. There’s a lot of confusion about conflict in the modern world. We’ve been taught that conflict is taboo. In fact, conflict is to this century what sex was to the 1950s – NICE people don’t talk about it or admit they do it. This to the point of ignorance about conflict has become a form of snobbery. "I'm too civilized and intelligent to engage in conflict."

Unfortunately, this ignorance hurts us. We’re social primates, so, like sex, conflict is part of life. That I have to articulate this cycle shows how far we've drifted from understanding our own human nature. We are told conflict is bad, don't do it. With this taboo, we never learn how to engage in conflict in a positive and constructive manner. 

 By not understanding conflict, we fear it and when we do it, we unwittingly break the rules. This especially when we obsess on 'winning' in situations where winning isn't the issue.  These violations make conflict both worse and more traumatic. 

Knowing the cycle won't allow you to 'win' your arguments, but it will help you better maintain relationships with people you find yourself in conflict with.

Hopefully, knowing this cycle will help you learn how to stay out of conflict in the first place (by not personalizing problems needing to be addressed). Second, if you do find yourself in a conflict, how to engage in more mature and constructive strategies for positive resolutions.

Like it or not, we’re going to have disputes with those people in our lives as we hash out the group dynamics. You can use these guidelines to become better at handling conflict and less fearful about it. 

Or you can keep on letting your Monkey dig you deeper and deeper into conflict and have to face the consequences. If you really want things to get ugly, don’t follow this pattern, especially at work, in your relationships or with your family.

Who do you want controlling your life, you or your Monkey?

[1] The Triune Brain theory was originally proposed by Dr. Paul MacLean (neuroscientist) in the 1960's. Given the technology of the time, it seemed to work. With the advent of the MRI, we were able to actually witness the brain's functioning. It turned out how the brain works is far more complicated than just three. While no longer a viable theory, the three brain idea remains a good working model for people to understand and communicate about the different ways the brain does information processing and reactions.
[2] In truth, humans are amazingly non-violent animals -- at least physically. (We're emotionally and verbally violent all the time.) In other words, we're great at bluffing and using the threat of physical violence -- even when we're not planning to physically attack. We use threat displays/display aggression in pretending like we might attack -- if we don't get our way. These displays (tone of voice, glaring, yelling, waving arms, etc) are communication, not physical attacks. They makes us more convincing and intimidating (so we can get our way).
[3] I make a distinction between reality and actuality. An event happens. Your 'reality' is your subjective, personalized, interpretation of ... well, everything. What the event was. What it meant. What was the motivation. Was it right, wrong. How it affects you. What is the right response, etc., etc. (Basically the story you tell yourself about what happened.) 'Actuality' is what shows up on the security video.
[4] It helps to imagine them as either a monkey chattering at you from a tree or -- if it's in the de-escalation phase of the conflict cycle -- trying to calm down a scared monkey. You avoid it's bites, but don't do things to trigger more.


  1. This is just a cartoon, but kind of fun, and kind of on point.

  2. It's a definition that doesn't need to be changed. He calls it "reality" because it is what they think reality is. They also think it is "actuality," so it is their actuality as well.

    Actuality is what shows up on the tape. It is reality that shows up on the tape as well. It is their perceptions that don't.