We appear to be devolving into our reactive emotions a lot these days: venting on social media, choosing to pay attention to media outlets that regurgitate our positions back to us, all of which further attaches us to our own views in a dangerous configuration that can fuel the flames of outrage, violence, and hate. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that the number of likes and comments on hate group accounts increased by 900 percent between 2015 and 2017. It seems we are ignoring the crucial difference between speaking up for ourselves and speaking out harshly against others.
By normalizing discord in this way, we’re also setting the bar for how our children and teens interact. They might go to school thinking they can bully their peers—in person and online—because they’ve seen adults do it. Bullying of any kind has far-reaching negative implications. Cyberbullying puts both bully and victim at increased risk for depression, anxiety, suicide, and problematic behaviors directed outward (cheating, stealing, arson, etc), according to a 2014 report in Paediatrics & Child Health. A 2015 meta-analysis of studies on bullying in the journal Pediatrics showed that “…bullying in any capacity is associated with suicidal ideation and behavior.” And the negative effects of victimization from bullying don’t end in adolescence: Adults who were bullied in childhood have an increased prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders.
If we want to open our minds and listen to others during times of conflict, we need to open our hearts and understand fear and suffering—our own and that of others. Mindfulness, which has been shown to help mental, behavioral, and physical outcomes in both youth and adults, is a powerful tool that can help us respond to conflict in a non-reactive way.
Mindfulness, which has been shown to help mental, behavioral, and physical outcomes in both youth and adults, is a powerful tool that can help us respond to conflict in a non-reactive way.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), “Mindfulness is awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, non-judgmentally.” With present-moment awareness, we learn to identify our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations without defining ourselves by them. When we can patiently witness our own fears and hurts, we give ourselves the chance to release them, which in turn helps us develop understanding and compassion for others.
10 Steps to Respond with Resilience, Not Reactivity
Follow these ten to respond to conflict with openness and patience. The inspiration behind these steps comes in part from Fleet Maull’s Prison Mindfulness Institute’s Path of Freedom course and Gina Biegel’s Stressed Teens program.
Explore these mindfulness tips for reducing reactivity. The most important takeaway is having an outlet to work with strong emotions in the heat of the moment instead of acting on urges that might end up creating or intensifying problems. We use mindful practices to create space between a flash of anger or another strong emotion so that we may have more choice over what to do next — sometimes that just means walking away or taking a pause or deep breath before we speak. As we learn to practice these skills ourselves, we teach our kids how to respond mindfully.
- Always pause — When a conflict arises, avoid lashing out. Take a moment to breathe slowly and notice the air coming into and going out of your lungs and belly. Allow the simple act of focusing on your breath to ground you in the present moment.
- Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling — Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions. Is your mind racing with angry thoughts? Do you feel hurt or embarrassed? Just notice these. Thoughts and emotions are natural. They will settle if you don’t react to them.
- Do a brief body scan— Notice the physical sensations that arise with your thoughts and emotions. Are you clenching your jaw? Are you tightening your fists, ready to hit something? Are your leg muscles twitching, urging you to flee? Notice any muscle tension from your toes to the top of your head.
- Settle into your breath — As you breathe, you will notice a pause at the end of each out breath before you breathe in again. During this pause, relax, and soften your muscles. Keep doing this for a few minutes, relaxing deeper and deeper into each pause.
- Acknowledge that you have space to choose — Accept that you are upset and don’t fight it. You could even say aloud, “I am upset.” Choose to be patient with yourself. If, however, your emotions feel too strong to investigate, acknowledge your difficulty and move away from the troubling situation. You can choose to return to the issue when you are calmer.
- Challenge your assumptions — Be open-minded to the views of others involved in the conflict. Don’t assume you know where people’s ideas come from or how other people are feeling. Challenge yourself to ask open-ended questions so that you can truly understand their perspective.
- Avoid negative speech — Name-calling is never helpful. Instead, explain your point of view clearly and acknowledge the viewpoints of others.
- Suggest a resolution — Stick to the point of the conflict and suggest one or more ways to resolve it. Calmly discuss the pros and cons of each suggestion.
- Move forward — Agree to try a resolution without resentment. And when you move forward with a suggestion, give it your full effort.
- Forgive —Holding onto anger and resentment only hurts us and burdens relationships. Forgive yourself and others for being different and having an argument, and accept the idea that by learning to resolve conflict, we grow as people.
Taking these ten mindfulness steps may not guarantee the outcome of a particular argument, but by practicing them regularly, you can build your sense of confidence, well-being, and acceptance of challenging situations. These skills will serve you when you feel angry or divided as well as model resilient and positive examples of conflict resolution for our kids.