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ScienceSocietySpiegeloog 409: Conflict

Mindfulness as a tool for conflict resolution

By February 2, 2021No Comments

With its many proven benefits, mindfulness became popular among both psychologists and the general public. One of these benefits seems to be the calm state of mind that it brings to conflicts, where a piece of calmness is definitely needed.

With its many proven benefits, mindfulness became popular among both psychologists and the general public. One of these benefits seems to be the calm state of mind that it brings to conflicts, where a piece of calmness is definitely needed.

Mindfulness is defined as the practice of being aware of our body, mind, and feelings in the present moment that is thought to create a feeling of calm (Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d.). It aims to achieve a state of relaxation by strengthening our awareness of our thoughts and bodily sensations. It is practiced in many ways such as meditation, observing our breathing, taking walks, starting our day with a specific purpose or during an action as simple as eating. The key factor in all this is to do one action at a time, pay careful attention to what we are doing in that moment and set intentions to our actions. Especially in a time where we do everything in a rush, engaging in small mindful actions allows us to get familiar with our thought processes, emotions, bodily sensations, and ultimately attain a general state of awareness which brings many advantages. 

Extensive previous research has found that mindfulness is beneficial for improving emotional intelligence, sharpening attention skills, increasing activity in brain regions associated with happiness and improving overall cognition. With these clear advantages, undoubtedly it was also studied in the clinical setting and is now the foundation of some very useful therapy techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which can help treat mood, anxiety and panic disorders. In this article, I explore the role of mindfulness in case of conflicts to see if it is once again a useful tool. I will start with discussing the psychological process of conflicts. Then, I will introduce three mindfulness tools that might be useful for managing these conflicts. I will also talk about the reasons why these tools might be useful. 

Frustration-aggression theory (Dollard et al., 1939) states that when people get into a conflict and perceive their goals as threatened, they usually end up experiencing strong negative feelings, like aggression. As these strong negative emotions cloud our minds, not surprisingly, our focus becomes narrower and more positional. With a positional focus, we tend to use biased thought patterns like optimistic overconfidence, which is the tendency to overvalue the strength of one’s own position. As well as fundamental attribution error, which is assuming that a person acted in a certain way because of their character rather than the circumstances. Moreover, the rush of negative emotions also causes us to think faster and more superficially, which is again a susceptible place to fall prey for biases. As a result, we become less able to recognize our true emotions, as well as the emotions of others, and the conflicts become harder to resolve (Riskin & Wohl, 2015). Luckily, these biases can be conquered with the right motivation and capacity. According to Yovetich and Rusbult (1994), when people have the capacity to engage in systemic thinking, and intentionally try to activate the most appropriate, rather than the most accessible thinking patterns, they are better at finding ways to resolve their conflict smoothly. Here, mindfulness steps in by showing us how to put this theory in practice.

“It might not always be possible to maintain the intention of being mindful during a heated argument, when negative emotions are involved”

As aforementioned, mindfulness can be practiced in our day-to-day lives and this helps with attaining a general state of awareness which is needed in logical conflict management. However, understandably, it might not always be possible to maintain this intention of being mindful during a heated argument when negative emotions are involved. In order to minimize this problem, Riskin and Wohl (2015) came up with three practical tools of awareness that can be used during a conflict: STOP, STOPSI and taking STOCK. All three of these tools are built upon the triangle of awareness (McCown, Reibel & Micozzi, 2011), which consists of three fundamental pieces of mindful awareness: body sensations, emotions and thoughts (BETs). These three elements are constantly interacting and influencing each other in the triangle of awareness, and they constitute how we perceive an experience. With the use of mindfulness, we learn how to acknowledge this triangle and regulate it, instead of getting caught-up in it.

With the first tool, STOP, we are advised to Stop whatever we are doing in the current moment, Take a breath, Observe our BETs for about two minutes and then Proceed with whatever we were doing. Here, the key factor is to be non-judgmental while observing. The next tool, STOPSI adds one more step to STOP. This time it encourages us to Set a clear and simple Intention before we Proceed. This intention involves how we want to ‘be’ for the rest of the time period. For example, we can decide to be more kind, agreeable or calm; and this intention will potentially allow us to feel more satisfied, even if our goals are not met at the end of the conflict. STOPSI facilitates attaining this state by helping us switch from fast thinking to slow thinking, with which we act more consciously and consistent with our values. We think more clearly and make logical decisions. Without such intentions, we are more prone to act automatically, meaning that we are more vulnerable to all the biases that are available. 

Lastly, with the taking STOCK tool, we take this to the next level. If we already know that we are going to have a discussion that will potentially turn into a conflict, such as a meeting where we will express our dissatisfactions about a project to our teammates, taking STOCK advises us to follow the STOPSI steps before the meeting. Then during the meeting, from time to time we will Stop, Take a breath, Observe our BETs and Consider if we have been following our intentions. At this point, we can also change our intentions in case we decide that another intention is needed in order to resolve the conflict. Lastly, we Keep going with the discussion. This tool is seen as the most advanced one as it allows us to be more prepared for the potential conflicts as well as to keep our mindful approach.

“By practicing mindfulness, our emotional intelligence improves over time and we become better at regulating our emotions”

With the help of these tools, STOP, STPOSI and STOCK, or with practicing it during our daily activities, mindfulness improves our conflict management in several ways. Firstly, it enhances our ability to notice and interrupt fast, superficial thinking, and shift to slow, systemic thinking (Kahneman, 2012). Systematic thinking ameliorates our critical eye and decision-making skills; thus, we get better at evaluating the course of the conflict. In addition to this, it also increases our general awareness which helps sharpen our attentional skills. A sharp attention span allows us to keep our focus on the desired outcome as well as the needs of the other people and reduces communication problems. Lastly, by practicing mindfulness, our emotional intelligence improves over time, therefore, we become better at regulating our emotions. This emotional intelligence improvement also helps us with becoming more self-aware and empathetic towards people (Goleman, 2013). Getting better at identifying and regulating emotions consequently allows us to manage the conflicts in a more conscious way. 

All in all, in addition to all other benefits, mindfulness can indeed be useful during conflicts, especially when negative feelings are involved. Although it requires practice and patience to get better at, once it is ameliorated, it gives us the opportunity to manage conflicts smoothly and reach desired conclusions.  <<

References

– Dollard, J., Miller, N. E., Doob, L. W., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. R. (1939). Frustration and aggression.
– Mindful(2018). 5 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Daily Life. Mindful, retrieved from www.mindful.org/take-a-mindful-moment-5-simple-practices-for-daily-life/. 
– Riskin, L. L., & Wohl, R. (2015). Mindfulness in the heat of conflict: Taking stock. Harv. Negot. L. Rev.20, 121.

Mindfulness is defined as the practice of being aware of our body, mind, and feelings in the present moment that is thought to create a feeling of calm (Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d.). It aims to achieve a state of relaxation by strengthening our awareness of our thoughts and bodily sensations. It is practiced in many ways such as meditation, observing our breathing, taking walks, starting our day with a specific purpose or during an action as simple as eating. The key factor in all this is to do one action at a time, pay careful attention to what we are doing in that moment and set intentions to our actions. Especially in a time where we do everything in a rush, engaging in small mindful actions allows us to get familiar with our thought processes, emotions, bodily sensations, and ultimately attain a general state of awareness which brings many advantages. 

Extensive previous research has found that mindfulness is beneficial for improving emotional intelligence, sharpening attention skills, increasing activity in brain regions associated with happiness and improving overall cognition. With these clear advantages, undoubtedly it was also studied in the clinical setting and is now the foundation of some very useful therapy techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which can help treat mood, anxiety and panic disorders. In this article, I explore the role of mindfulness in case of conflicts to see if it is once again a useful tool. I will start with discussing the psychological process of conflicts. Then, I will introduce three mindfulness tools that might be useful for managing these conflicts. I will also talk about the reasons why these tools might be useful. 

Frustration-aggression theory (Dollard et al., 1939) states that when people get into a conflict and perceive their goals as threatened, they usually end up experiencing strong negative feelings, like aggression. As these strong negative emotions cloud our minds, not surprisingly, our focus becomes narrower and more positional. With a positional focus, we tend to use biased thought patterns like optimistic overconfidence, which is the tendency to overvalue the strength of one’s own position. As well as fundamental attribution error, which is assuming that a person acted in a certain way because of their character rather than the circumstances. Moreover, the rush of negative emotions also causes us to think faster and more superficially, which is again a susceptible place to fall prey for biases. As a result, we become less able to recognize our true emotions, as well as the emotions of others, and the conflicts become harder to resolve (Riskin & Wohl, 2015). Luckily, these biases can be conquered with the right motivation and capacity. According to Yovetich and Rusbult (1994), when people have the capacity to engage in systemic thinking, and intentionally try to activate the most appropriate, rather than the most accessible thinking patterns, they are better at finding ways to resolve their conflict smoothly. Here, mindfulness steps in by showing us how to put this theory in practice.

“It might not always be possible to maintain the intention of being mindful during a heated argument, when negative emotions are involved”

As aforementioned, mindfulness can be practiced in our day-to-day lives and this helps with attaining a general state of awareness which is needed in logical conflict management. However, understandably, it might not always be possible to maintain this intention of being mindful during a heated argument when negative emotions are involved. In order to minimize this problem, Riskin and Wohl (2015) came up with three practical tools of awareness that can be used during a conflict: STOP, STOPSI and taking STOCK. All three of these tools are built upon the triangle of awareness (McCown, Reibel & Micozzi, 2011), which consists of three fundamental pieces of mindful awareness: body sensations, emotions and thoughts (BETs). These three elements are constantly interacting and influencing each other in the triangle of awareness, and they constitute how we perceive an experience. With the use of mindfulness, we learn how to acknowledge this triangle and regulate it, instead of getting caught-up in it.

With the first tool, STOP, we are advised to Stop whatever we are doing in the current moment, Take a breath, Observe our BETs for about two minutes and then Proceed with whatever we were doing. Here, the key factor is to be non-judgmental while observing. The next tool, STOPSI adds one more step to STOP. This time it encourages us to Set a clear and simple Intention before we Proceed. This intention involves how we want to ‘be’ for the rest of the time period. For example, we can decide to be more kind, agreeable or calm; and this intention will potentially allow us to feel more satisfied, even if our goals are not met at the end of the conflict. STOPSI facilitates attaining this state by helping us switch from fast thinking to slow thinking, with which we act more consciously and consistent with our values. We think more clearly and make logical decisions. Without such intentions, we are more prone to act automatically, meaning that we are more vulnerable to all the biases that are available. 

Lastly, with the taking STOCK tool, we take this to the next level. If we already know that we are going to have a discussion that will potentially turn into a conflict, such as a meeting where we will express our dissatisfactions about a project to our teammates, taking STOCK advises us to follow the STOPSI steps before the meeting. Then during the meeting, from time to time we will Stop, Take a breath, Observe our BETs and Consider if we have been following our intentions. At this point, we can also change our intentions in case we decide that another intention is needed in order to resolve the conflict. Lastly, we Keep going with the discussion. This tool is seen as the most advanced one as it allows us to be more prepared for the potential conflicts as well as to keep our mindful approach.

“By practicing mindfulness, our emotional intelligence improves over time and we become better at regulating our emotions”

With the help of these tools, STOP, STPOSI and STOCK, or with practicing it during our daily activities, mindfulness improves our conflict management in several ways. Firstly, it enhances our ability to notice and interrupt fast, superficial thinking, and shift to slow, systemic thinking (Kahneman, 2012). Systematic thinking ameliorates our critical eye and decision-making skills; thus, we get better at evaluating the course of the conflict. In addition to this, it also increases our general awareness which helps sharpen our attentional skills. A sharp attention span allows us to keep our focus on the desired outcome as well as the needs of the other people and reduces communication problems. Lastly, by practicing mindfulness, our emotional intelligence improves over time, therefore, we become better at regulating our emotions. This emotional intelligence improvement also helps us with becoming more self-aware and empathetic towards people (Goleman, 2013). Getting better at identifying and regulating emotions consequently allows us to manage the conflicts in a more conscious way. 

All in all, in addition to all other benefits, mindfulness can indeed be useful during conflicts, especially when negative feelings are involved. Although it requires practice and patience to get better at, once it is ameliorated, it gives us the opportunity to manage conflicts smoothly and reach desired conclusions.  <<

References

– Dollard, J., Miller, N. E., Doob, L. W., Mowrer, O. H., & Sears, R. R. (1939). Frustration and aggression.
– Mindful(2018). 5 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Daily Life. Mindful, retrieved from www.mindful.org/take-a-mindful-moment-5-simple-practices-for-daily-life/. 
– Riskin, L. L., & Wohl, R. (2015). Mindfulness in the heat of conflict: Taking stock. Harv. Negot. L. Rev.20, 121.
Esna Mualla Gunay

Author Esna Mualla Gunay

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