“Sharon, we need to talk.”

“Sure Pete, come on in,” Sharon said.Pete was the chairman of the board of directors and Sharon was the chief executive officer.

Pete sat down in front of Sharon ’s desk and looked at her for a moment.

“Well, what’s on your mind?” asked Sharon.

“The board has lost confidence in your ability to lead the company.”

Suppose you are in Sharon ’s position. What would be your response?

Let’s assume Sharon was completely surprised by this conversation. She probably first felt like she had been physically struck because of the total rejection implicit in Pete’s statement. At this moment, her fear response system activated a complex set of emotions and feelings that rapidly overwhelmed her sense of control and serenity. Her motivational states were in chaos as she experienced wishes, hopes, fears, anxiety, and dread cascading one after the other. She was poised to either escalate the conflict or de-escalate it, depending upon how she responded.

If she allowed her neuropsychological state to overwhelm her, she would probably invoke defensive schemas she had developed over her lifetime.These schemas or patterns might be represented by an angry outburst, by silence, by avoidance, by denial, by counter-attack or any of many other possible reactions. Whatever Sharon’s reaction, she would not consciously choose it. Instead, her preconscious brain would create a response from Sharon ’s large repertoire of actions. Sharon’s higher level cognitive processing essentially would shut down in the face of the alarms generated by other brain functions.

Sharon had a choice, however.Neurophysiologically, she had about three quarters of a second to override her preconscious processes before they overwhelmed her conscious, rational abilities. If she was aware of this time lag, she could stop her fear response system dead in its tracks, and assess the situation she faced with more aplomb. If she succeeded in stopping her fear response system, she could engage Pete constructively in two ways.

First, Sharon could detach herself from the reactions Pete’s statement elicited in her.While she felt how her body was responding to the threat, she could choose not to be reactive to it. By doing this, Sharon would feel confidence in herself and her ability to deal with a difficult situation.

Second, Sharon from her place of detachment could engage Pete and connect to him. Rather than focusing on her own feelings and shock, Sharon could create a space within herself to listen to Pete.

So, if Sharon was able to shut down her fear response system, detach from her physical reactions, and engage Pete, the conversation might continue like this.

“Pete, this is obviously a serious issue. You must be frustrated with what I’ve done and are hoping that changes might occur.”In this response, Sharon approached Pete by connecting with him empathically. Sharon may have realized that her tenure with the company was at an end, but also recognized that escalating this conflict would be counterproductive to her own needs as well as the company’s needs.

Pete’s reaction to Sharon ’s statement, if he is normal, will be to de-escalate. People in Pete’s position expect a hostile reaction, not a connecting engagement. The natural reaction to empathic connection is to approach, not defend. Thus, Sharon’s statementcreated a space where Pete did not have to feel defensive.

“Well, you are right. I have been frustrated that the company simply has stalled out its growth. We think that a new perspective might put us back on track,” Pete said.

“So you are frustrated that the company’s growth has stalled and are hoping that a new perspective might help,” Sharon said. Again, with great difficulty, Sharon is remaining detached, yet staying connected to Pete.

“Yes, exactly,” said Pete.

“Well, regardless of what you decide to do with me, do you think that we could have the board executive committee meet to talk about the challenges we’re facing?”

“Yes, I think that might be a good idea,” Pete responded. “I’ll see if we can’t arrange meeting later today.” Pete left her office, feeling relieved at the outcome.

At the executive committee meeting, Sharon remained detached from her physical reactions, but actively engaged and connected to the committee members. She consciously avoided saying anything defensive and worked hard listening to what each member had to say. During this meeting, the executive committee began to see that the problems were not caused by Sharon , but by external factors beyond the company’s control. She had been telling them this for months, but only now did they understand the issues. At the end of the meeting, a new plan of action had been adopted. Sharon ’s employment status was not raised until she brought it up.

“I think you have a good plan. I would like to stay to implement it, but I understand if you think you need someone else,” she said.The members of the committee, now feeling secure with a plan of action, assured her that their confidence in her had been restored.

Sharon faced a difficult, challenging day.The outcome of the conflict depended on her reactions in the first seconds of confrontation. By detaching herself from her physical reactions and consciously choosing to connect and approach rather than to defend by fleeing or fighting, she was able to save her job and continue to develop the company. Even if she was finished at the company, by choosing her reaction, she would have kept her poise and been in the best position to work on the terms of her severance.

Each person has the ability to override the human fear response system.The task is not difficult if you know you are not a slave to your preconscious processes. Simply being aware and making a conscious choice not be reactive is a positive response to unexpected conflict in your life.

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By Doug Noll

Douglas E. Noll is a lawyer turned peacemaker, professional mediator, and author of Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts (Prometheus Books, 2011). He can be reached at doug@nollassociates.com.