Emotions, Triggers and Intent
Emotions and conflict
One of the ways of looking at conflict tends towards looking at needs, values, identity and status and often in analysing people’s responses means that we tend to look at conflict participants as making decisions solely on a rational basis. Of course, many people do act rationally in conflict and make decisions that are based on their framework of how they understand their own or their families wants and needs or how best to protect themselves.
Some analysis in conflict looks at emotion being something that needs to be aired and vented and for people to move on before beginning to really look at how conflict can be managed
However, research on human behaviour shows that a substantial part of our decision making and reactions are not governed solely by our rational, conscious selves but are often based on emotional and unconscious parts of our brains. Some analysis in conflict looks at emotion being something that needs to be aired and vented and for people to move on before beginning to really look at how conflict can be managed.
Many of our needs, including around status, identity, security are key triggers (see below) for us that are not based on rational decision making process but operate at a more deep-rooted emotional basis. Therefore we need to be clear that emotions, being sensitive to emotions, particularly how they influence (or determine) how we frame our involvement in conflict. Our third side approach needs to be able to identify the role of emotion in conflict but also in different third side roles need to be able to not only identify how emotions play a key role in how people respond to conflict and how they get involved.
Looking at emotions we can see how they are lined with power, triggers and intent. There is often a tendency to look at emotions in a negative light, such as anger, anxiety, humiliation, damage to pride as drivers of escalating conflict. There are also powerful emotions that can look to build bridges between those in conflict: shared values, identity, love, compassion, empathy.
One of the fallacies that all people share is that there our “conscious selves” (our inner narrator or centre of our thoughts) makes decisions rationally on information we receive from our environment, weighs up options based on our long-term goals and aspirations and based on a number of competing variables, makes the best choice it can. Very few people can accept that many of the decisions we make, are made non-consciously.
How do our emotional/non Conscious responses differ from our conscious decisions?
Research has shown that more and more of how we react is based on systems that evolved before we became conscious. Even complex things we do which are integral to being human are done unconsciously. A classic example is learning to talk- no child has to be taught grammar or syntax and would be completely unable to explain what they are doing as they learn between 10 to 20 words a week as toddlers and learn where to put them in the correct order- all this happens unconsciously in a well designed system. Further research has shown that our non-conscious brain filters information even before our conscious selves analyse it- such as recognising patterns- which can have serious implications for discussions about how bias and stereotypes can develop.
|Single system||Multiple locations|
|After the fact check & balancer||Pattern detection|
|Taking the long view||Concerned with here & now|
|Controlled (slow, intentional, controllable, effortful)||Automatic (fast, unintentional, uncontrollable, effortless)|
|Slower to develop||Precocious|
|Sensitive to positive information||Sensitive to negative information|
Why is this important to know? If we are beginning to understand conflict, we need to know that people often react unconsciously based on adaptive systems that have evolved to protect ourselves. It is something that is not learned and as it is unconscious (we don’t even know we are doing these things) is unknown to us what or how this has happened and takes a lot of reflection to counter it. Unconscious systems look for patterns, which is useful in avoiding dangers and threats- but is less helpful when it identifies patterns that are not there (such as racist stereotypes).
Also, if we take third party roles we need conflict participants to begin to reflect on their own emotional responses, to examine their unconscious responses. And, as importantly, we need conflict participants to realise that other people’s responses may not have been rational, intentional acts and build an understanding of how emotions can play a huge role in conflict escalation- and more importantly, in creating ways to de-escalate conflict.
If people in conflict are emotional, the third party role needs to acknowledge them and try and find out what is the source. Why is someone angry? It may be that this anger is at the core of a dispute and rather than asking for someone to vent, we need to try and understand what was at stake that provoked this emotional response to a particular need- especially if that need is an unconscious one, or hard to describe. Remember that the issue that is presented is not likely to be the real driver of the conflict (root cause)
Emotional or non-conscious responses are likely to be linked to values, identity, status and needs. Often there is an assumption for each of the key root causes of conflict, people, as rational actors to achieve those aims. Yet more research has shown that our emotional selves are often the key drivers in how we respond to conflict, and no where is this more evident that in looking at our triggers
Triggers in conflict – we all have them, getting to know them, understand them and control them
A trigger is a topic, issue or value that once mentioned, threatened or raised means that our rational selves no longer control the situation and we react without thinking (although, as we see above, some part of our brain is deciding to respond- it may not be our conscious “selves”). Typically triggers relate to aspects of our lives of significant importance
People can have a number of triggers and each person differs in how many they have, how they respond to each of them; and depending on the person’s ability to self-reflect and adapt, how they can control or modify their responses to them. It is unlikely that anyone can actually stop being triggered- what we can strive towards is that we control our responses as to not escalate conflict
Example of triggers are:
- Identity threatened- this could be our ethnicity, sexuality, gender
- Family threatened or insulted- some people will accept comments made about themselves but will respond without question if their children/parents/extended family are insulted
- Aspects of what we view as key personality traits- motives, integrity, honesty called into question
- Issues of Status- questioning someone’s standing in the community
- Professionalism- a key component for some people’s identity is their professionalism- calling it into question can trigger some people
- Embarrassment- competence/expertise/knowledge openly called into question & publicly humiliated
Part of the work of those involved in analysing conflict for a Traveller project will be to understand their own triggers, help others to do so and then engage conflict participants to know what their triggers are and how they will manage their responses to them. This will be covered in the Tools and Practices (link) section.
Intent vs. Impact: Why Intentions Don’t Really Matter for those who have suffered hurt, but do matter for those who have unintentionally caused hurt!
Whether people intend to do harm, whether by words or by action, can be a huge trigger in many early conflict situations- and lead to escalation. We can use this as an example of how without someone playing a third side role to conflict coach means a spiral of accusation and further recrimination versus a situation where people recognise their triggers, understand the impact of intent and work towards better understanding:
Does intent matter?
A thought experiment can get us to see how intent for someone who has suffered pain or injustice means very little, yet for someone who has caused hurt, matters a lot. If you were walking in a park minding your own business as people play a game of football near by. Without warning a football hits you in the face, causing you considerable pain. It is a natural unconscious response, you are in pain, confused and angry and immediately respond with “who did that?”
There are two possible ways the person who has accidentally kicked the ball into your face can respond:
“I’m sorry, that is completely my fault. Are you alright? Can I get you anything?”
Even being angry, most people would accept the apology and move on.
However, if the response was: “Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you! I didn’t intend that! I was trying to kick the ball over there!”
With a sore face, you are likely to be less concerned with what the person was trying to do and are more concerned with getting an apology
How would you feel if the response to an apology was not only a refusal, but an angry response of “why should I apologise? I’ve already said I didn’t mean it. And if you don’t want to get hit with a football, why go walking in the park?”
What we can see is that there are two things going on: if people take ownership of unintentionally hurting people and apologies, situations can deescalate quickly. However, for many people, it is a trigger for them when their intentions are called into play based on emotional responses which question their value base (“why would he think I would try to hurt him? I’m a good person? I didn’t mean it- that should be enough- and now I am not apologising”).
Here are two examples to show how hurt & intent can cause a conflict to escalate.
This is a classic example whereby a statement is made (1) which is unintended to cause offence but (2) does and triggers person 2, who emotionally responds that hurt has been caused (based on their frame of the other person and triggers their response). Person one now has an emotional response (4) which involves an emotional trigger based on how they view themselves as a good person and react (5) that not only was there no intent, but they can’t believe they have been accused of trying to hurt the other person- which results in a further trigger (6) as not only has the hurt gone un acknowledged but has been met with further hostility. From then on, it is easy to see how this relationship can deteriorate further and the conflict can escalate.
Now imagine that the same situation occurs between two people with a similarly poor relationship, but who have reflected on their own triggers, potential triggers of other people, causes of conflict (link) though conflict coaching
In the same situation a statement is made, but because of work done and reflection on emotions and triggers, person 2 is able to respond rationally and rather than emotionally react they can now say “I know you didn’t intend to hurt me, but those words have had an impact on me”. The first person, also with conflict coaching, now recognises that whilst there was no intention, hurt has been caused, takes ownership and apologises, but also is keen to let person 2 know that no intent to harm has been caused. This response not only de-escalates a potentially difficult situation, but also begins to build a relationship on shared understandings, trust and better communication.