Flight, Fight, Freeze

These are often the reactions we automatically have when faced with conflict. It comes from our long-ago ancestors who were up against some serious challenges like saber tooth tigers and other warring tribes.

Now-a-days, while we don’t usually find ourselves in these kinds of dangerous situations, we do still have these ancient reactions when we experience conflicts with other people. It’s natural. But how do we get past this so we can figure things out and move forward?

This where a neutral, third party – a mediator – can make a big difference. When I’m working folks in conflict and one person says something to the other that is clearly intended as a jab or criticism (fight), I can call them on it and redirect them to a more neutral or positive place. They’ve signed up to allow me to be their referee so when I tell them stop, they usually listen. Then from there, I can help them find the words to ask for the thing they really want.

A flight example is when someone who is so upset and overwhelmed with all that’s happened that they get up and walk out of the mediation. This is not uncommon and it’s okay. It usually just means they need a break from it all right then. When this happens, I follow them out of the room, let them vent and find them a separate space so they can cool down before resuming talks. Sometimes the talks will continue to in two separate spaces, which can really help parties feel safe, calm, and productive.

When a party freezes and goes silent in a mediation, it might be because they feel overwhelmed, they’re furious, or they’re afraid that when they do speak it will anger other person. Usually, the best remedy for this is, again, separate rooms so they can take a breath, calm down, and speak freely and privately with me. I then go back and forth between rooms relaying helpful information and assisting them work toward agreements. The anger and fear don’t interact in the same way anymore and progress can be made.

Whatever the reactions may be, we mediators can see these dynamics from a mile away and we’ll do what it takes to make each person feel safe and calm enough to be able to express themselves constructively. We manage the conversation so interruption is minimized and get people to take turns talking. We ask clarifying questions so what folks are trying to say is clear to everyone. We help everyone find words to express what they want to have happen rather than what didn’t go well already. We point out where they already agree on things to help them see the progress they’re making. We have them take breaks or use separate rooms to keep nerves as calm as possible.

Humans may always have these fight, flight, or freeze reactions, especially when something is personal and intense. Recognizing that that is what is going on shows we’re evolving and I encourage you to see it for what it is. But when that’s not enough and you need back up to help you get past those reactions, I encourage you to invite in a referee, a neutral, third party to help you get through it. You’ll be better heard and get to a better resolution than if you continue to flail in the same way as usual.