Fostering Peace and Preventing Needless Conflict and Suffering Through Emotional Education
Inevitable and needless conflict
A certain amount of conflict is inevitable. Every person has the right to want whatever they want and to like or dislike whatever they want to. As they say, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What different people want can conflict, as can peoples’ thoughts and feelings about things. However, there has always been and continues to be much needless and preventable conflict. There is also much needless anger which drives conflict and can cause conflicts to escalate out of control, often very quickly. The more we can understand how and why needless conflict occurs, the better our chance of preventing it, and keeping what conflict does arise from escalating needlessly.
The way life unfolds from moment to moment
There’s a formula for how life unfolds from moment to moment. It’s EVENT + THOUGHTS = FEELINGS > BEHAVIOR. Anything that happens or that others say or do is just an EVENT in this formula and in our lives. The human brain’s primary function is always survival, so it’s always evaluating what happens, trying to make sense of it, trying to determine if there is any threat. Therefore, it’s always generating THOUGHTS about what we’re experiencing. It’s what we think about such EVENTS that really causes how we FEEL. THOUGHTS cause FEELINGS, not EVENTS. Our THOUGHTS can be quite automatic from practice and rehearsal so we can move very quickly through this formula. It’s part of why people wrongly assume that EVENTS cause their FEELINGS, rather than their THOUGHTS. The other problem is that people don’t always generate the most helpful THOUGHTS about what they are experiencing. The formula also tells us that a person’s BEHAVIOR will tend to follow his/her FEELINGS or emotions toward the life EVENT. For example, people who get angry are likely to behave the way people do when angry. Finally, attitude (THOUGHT) is always the father of BEHAVIOR. It’s what people think that ultimately gives rise to their BEHAVIOR. Unhelpful THOUGHTS can be the “irrational logic” of BEHAVIOR. By that I mean what people say and do makes life worse for them and others, i.e. needless conflict, but it makes sense to them because of what they believe at the moment. Unfortunately, perception is not always reality. People just think it is.
Circle of Conflict – How conflicts arise and escalate
We can use this formula to diagram how conflicts occur and escalate. Someone else says or does something. That’s an EVENT for us. We generate THOUGHTS about that. Those THOUGHTS can lead to FEELINGS, for example anger. That can cause us to say or do something back (BEHAVIOR), which becomes an EVENT for the other person. They generate THOUGHTS about the EVENT, and generate FEELING, perhaps anger of their own. They say or do something and that becomes a new EVENT for us. People can move around this circle quite quickly, and FEELINGS and BEHAVIORS can escalate quite rapidly. We can diagram this process as what I like to call the CIRCLE OF CONFLICT.
What we control and what we don’t
So what can we do to prevent needless conflicts and keep them from escalating? An important question is, which half of this circle do we have control over? The answer is only our half of the circle, what we think, feel, say and do. Many people act and talk as if they can control what others think, feel, say or do, but we really don’t and can’t. Actually, trying to control what others think, feel, say and do, or even just having them think we are, is one of the most common causes of needless conflict. We only control what we do and learning to do that is a big enough job for most people and our best hope for preventing needless conflict and keeping ones that do arise from escalating. One of the simplest ways to prevent needless conflict is to focus on and work with what we do control, what we think, feel, say and do. It also can help to make it abundantly clear that we are not trying to control others. There’s an old saying that we always need at least one adult in the room. We should strive to be that adult as much as possible. There’s another saying for teachers and parents that, “It takes one fool to backtalk, and two to make a conversation out of it”. We don’t want to be that second fool.
What it helps to know about anger
There are some things I think everyone should know, understand and remind themselves about anger. Anger is the equivalent to emotional nitroglycerin, and just as hard to handle as the real thing. It’s why the concept of anger management in many ways is a fool’s errand. I always think of the Incredible Hulk, a Marvel cartoon character. Dr. Bruce Banner is an otherwise mild manner scientist, but when he gets mad, he “hulks out”. Once he does, havoc follows and it’s impossible to reign the Hulk in until he calms back down, usually after expending vast amounts of energy. The Hulk does a lot of unintended damage, even though he is considered a superhero. Getting angry is much like “hulking out”. It’s the way nature intended it to work to deal with threats to life and limb. It’s the “fight” half of our “fight or flight” response, which we’re hardwired for. That means that once we trigger it, it’s all systems go. The problem is that people too often needlessly trigger it – they get angry when things are not really a threat to life or limb, or anything close. It’s why I believe we should strive for anger prevention rather than trying to manage it once it occurs.
I like to hyphenate the word response-able because it really means being able to respond to a situation in the best possible way rather than react or overreact to it. There’s a saying that there’s two ways to make a situation you don’t like worse, do nothing and overreact to it. Too often people do the latter, often because they get angry, rather than simply frustrated, irritated or annoyed. Our goal should be to become more response-able, or to have more response-ability. The way to make that possible is to learn to prevent anger.
There’s another problem with anger. It gives people a false sense of power, righteousness, permission and protection. It’s why people who feel powerless are attracted to it. As for righteousness, ever met an angry person who thought they were wrong? People can do all kinds of unhelpful, inappropriate and destructive things when angry because of the false sense of permission it gives people. Anger is often a secondary emotion in that it is often preceded by other feelings like hurt, anxiety, shame and guilt. People “like” feeling angry because as long as they do, they don’t have to feel other feelings they don’t like, i.e. depression, anxiety, shame, guilt. Anger can make otherwise smart people say and do stupid things.
We always want to look at the frequency, intensity and duration of any emotion to decide whether it helps or hurts our lives. People too often generate a greater frequency, intensity and duration of anger than is necessary or helpful. Our goal should be to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of anger. Students would often ask my mentor, “Aren’t there times when being angry would be a good thing?” His answer was always anything you can do when angry, you can do better when you’re not. I suppose getting angry could save lives in some circumstances. However, on balance, there are just so many other times when getting angry makes life worse for people, and sometimes even leads to needless suffering, injury and even death. The ultimate problem is that people too often trigger it needlessly by wrongly perceiving threats where they don’t exist and magnifying ones that do out of proportion to reality. Our best hope for preventing conflicts and keeping them from escalating is to understand how people do this, how they imagine or manufacture threats where they need not exist and magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality. The work of the late Dr. Albert Ellis can be very helpful in doing that and learning how to stop doing it.
Ways people manufacture threats and magnify them out of proportion to reality
External Locus of Control
One of the ways is by having an external locus of control. Locus of control means where people see their feelings coming from, what they see as the cause of them. We can have an external (outer) or internal (inner) locus of control. The vast majority of the people walking the planet have an external locus of control. That means they wrongly see what others say and do, and what happens as the cause of the way they end of feeling. This gives them a false reason to see what others say and do as a threat it really isn’t, and get angry at those they wrongly see as the cause of how they feel. As noted earlier, it’s really what people choose to think about what others say or do that really causes how they feel. This concept is often summed up by “No one upsets you, you upset yourself”, which is a scientific reality. Learning and reminding ourselves of this is called developing an internal locus of control.
Threats to symbolic self
There’s another aspect to this. We all have what is called a symbolic self. It means the person we want to be and be seen as by others. When others say things about us, that can be perceived as a threat to our symbolic self. Unfortunately, the brain treats perceived threats to the symbolic self the same as threats to life and limb. That’s another way people manufacture threats where they don’t exist or magnify ones that do out of proportion to reality. In the past, kids were taught to respond to verbal attacks or name-calling with “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Today, in an understandable effort to prevent kids from bullying others, kids are often told “Words hurt”. Words are technically just an EVENT. It’s really what kids think about what is said and who is saying it that really determines if they feel hurt or not. I remember as child seeing and hearing kids say, “I know you are but what am I?” in response to being called names, and they were emotionally invincible to attacks, and often had a smile on their face while being called names. However, if they started thinking “How dare you say that about me?” or “You can’t call me that and get away with it” they immediately became at the mercy of those attacking them. My point is that by telling kids “words hurt” we are actually not doing them a favor. We are actually encouraging them to see threats where they need not exist.
Mental and Emotional Karate
While I was teaching, I developed Mental and Emotional Karate to help kids deal with bullying. Teachers are obligated to provide a safe environment for every student to learn in, so it makes sense to try to prevent bullying. However, that’s never completely effective. Therefore, it only makes sense to teach them how to defend themselves mentally and emotionally from attacks that might occur – to harden the targets of bullying as well. A big part of doing so is to teach and encourage them to develop an internal locus of control. Having a black belt in mental and emotional karate would entail them automatically responding to any verbal or cyber-attack with the attitude or response of “YOU can think, feel and say whatever you want to about me. That’s YOUR choice. But it’s MY choice how I look at myself and feel about myself. YOU don’t get to make those choices for me. Unless I let you. And I choose not to”.
Other problems with an external locus of control
There are other downsides of having an external locus of control besides wrongly seeing what others say and do as a threat. 1) It needlessly puts people at the seeming mercy of what others say and do. 2) It gives others seeming power and control over our emotional destiny that they really don’t have. 3) We give away the real power and control we do have over our emotional destiny. 4) This typically results in us feeling worse than we need to or want to. 5) We end up feeling like a victim, powerless to fee better (which is why we wrongly see others as a threat and might get angry) 6) It implies that others must start treating us better for us to feel better. What if they never do? 7) Most importantly, it causes us to miss opportunities to feel better.
There’s always more than one way to look at anything
It’s a fact of life that there is always more than one way to think about or look at anything that happens, regardless of how minor or major it might be. Some of those ways will make us feel better, others worse. Some ways will make it easier to cope or deal with what we don’t like, others harder. When we pick one to the exclusion of others, we technically have made a choice – we could have chosen to look at things is other ways that might have made us feel better, or help us better cope or deal with what we don’t like. Since we always have this choice, and it’s really how we choose to look at things that really determines how we feel, then it logically follows that it’s largely our choice how we want to feel. If we choose to think about or look at things in ways that make us feel worse or make it harder to deal with what we don’t like, that’s part of being human, and more than likely understandable given what our life experiences have been to that point, and because we’ve practiced and rehearsed certain ways of looking at things leading up to that moment. However, we can choose other ways, and with practice and rehearsal those new ways can become as automatic as our prior, unhelpful ways.
Cognitive choices we all have all the time
There are a host of cognitive choices we all make all the time. Unfortunately, because we practice and rehearse certain ways of thinking or looking at things, and making such choices, they become automatic, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we have these choices from moment to moment. Therefore, it can help to remind ourselves. For example,
- It’s my choice how I LOOK at things
- It’s my choice what MEANING I attach to what happens
- It’s my choice what I FOCUS on
- It’s my choice what I COMPARE things to
- It’s my choice what I REMEMBER about the past at any given moment
- It’s my choice what I IMAGINE will happen in the future
- It’s my choice what I EXPECT of myself, others and life
- It’s my choice how much IMPORTANCE I attach to what does happen
- It’s my choice what I spend my time THINKING about
Shame and Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA)
Shame is a feeling we experience when we believe we’re not living up to expectations, either others’ or our own. When others make negative comments about us, that can be a way of conveying to us that we are not living up to expectations. That can be perceived as a threat to our symbolic self. Remember the brain treats a threat to the symbolic self the same as one to life and limb. One way to minimize this perceived threat is to choose to have Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA). It means to choose to see whatever we think, feel, say or do, have in the past, or might in the future, as part of being human, and understandable given what our life experiences have been, and what we have to deal with at the time, regardless of what others might think, feel or say. Choosing to look at ourselves this way can negate any perceived threat from others being critical of us. That will negate the need to get angry. We can also choose to have UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance. It means choosing to see what others think, feel, say or do the same way. We can still dislike or disagree with what they do, but it helps temper our emotional response to what we don’t like or disagree with if we choose to look at things this way.
Irrational Thinking manufactures and magnifies threats
Dr. Albert Ellis identified four types of irrational thoughts that cause people to generate more emotion than is necessary or helpful, including becoming angry, and behave in ways that make their own and others live worse instead of better. What these ways of thinking do is manufacture threats where need not exist and magnify ones that might out of proportion to reality. The four types of thinking are called Demandingness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis, and Labeling and Damning.
There are three ways we can look at anything. We can 1) not care about it, we can 2) want, prefer and desire it, and we can 3) think we need it, it’s a necessity in our lives, and demand it. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s why I developed the THINK-FEEL-DO Thermostat Model for my students long ago. Here’s how we can diagram this aspect.
We all have the right to want, prefer and desire whatever we want to. However, once we want, prefer and desire something, there’s always the chance we may not get it, or lose it after we have. That will be perceived as a certain amount of threat by our brains. Shakespeare said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache”, and anger as well. The reason is that the greater the difference between our expectations of ourselves, others and live and reality (or at least what we perceive our reality to be), the bigger the perceived threat will be, and the more emotion we’ll generate. For example, anger instead of frustration, irritation and annoyance, or anxiety instead of concern. Frustration, irritation, annoyance and concern are enough energy to move to motivate us to act, but still allow us to respond in the best possible way. However, if we generate anger or anxiety (which can morph into anger) we are more likely to react or overreact to what we don’t like or disagree with. Here’s how we can diagram that:
Respond Don’t care Calm Do nothing
We can set our THINK thermostat wherever we want. However, there will be predictable emotional and behavioral consequences for where we do. If we elevate our simple wants, preferences and desires to need, necessity and demand, we artificially and needlessly exacerbate the gap between our expectations and reality if or when we don’t get what we want or lose it. This magnifies the threat out of proportion to reality and makes us more likely to get angry instead of just frustrated, irritated and annoyed when we don’t get what we want, prefer or desire from ourselves, others and life. That makes needless conflict more likely. People will even elevate their simple wants, preferences and desires to the same level as air, water and food in their minds, which needlessly and wrongly makes not getting what they want, prefer or desire or losing it like suffocating, dying of thirst or hunger – a much a much bigger threat than it is or needs to be. Anger can come from making demands of ourselves, others or life, but more often than not comes from making demands of others. The essence of the demand is “Everyone and everything has to be the way I want it to be”. How old does that sound? That’s why anger is the equivalent of a child throwing a temper tantrum.
Turning our THINK thermostat down
So how do we keep our thermostat down, or turn it down quickly should it go up suddenly? By questioning, challenging and disputing our thoughts. For example:
“They HAVE TO to do what I say?
- Why do they HAVE TO?
- They HAVE TO, or you just want them to?
“They CAN’T talk to me that way”
- Why CAN’T they?
- They CAN’T, or you just don’t want them to?
The only correct answers to such questions (based on actual reality) are:
“They don’t HAVE TO. They don’t HAVE TO do anything. I just want them to”
“They CAN. They CAN do whatever they want to. I just don’t want them to”
If we practice and rehearse posing such questions, doing so will become automatic and act much like grammar check on a computer.
There are a lot of things in life that are unpleasant, inconvenient and uncomfortable to some degree. The mistake people make is to turn their THINK thermostats up to AWFUL, as in the worst possible thing that could be happening to them at the moment. This makes the perceived threat much larger than it really is or needs to be. It’s “making a mountain out of a mole hill” and makes it more likely people will get angry instead of simply frustrated, irritated and annoyed. That makes needless conflict more likely. We can diagram it like this:
Don’t care Calm
The way we challenge AWFULIZING is by simply asking simple questions like:
- Why is it so awful?
- Is it AWFUL, or just unpleasant?
- Is it AWFUL, or just inconvenient?
- Is it AWFUL, or just uncomfortable?
There are some things that do rise to the level of AWFUL, i.e. losing a child. However, for most other things it’s simply true that:
“It’s not AWFUL. It’s just unpleasant/inconvenient/uncomfortable”
Can’t Stand It-itis
Everyone has the right to like or dislike whatever they want to. The mistake people make is to start telling themselves they CAN’T STAND something they simply don’t like. That needlessly inflames them. It’s why Dr. Ellis called it CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS. The suffix -ITIS means something is inflamed. This makes people more likely to get angry, and overreact to a wrongly magnified perceived threat, which in turn makes needless conflict more likely. The THINK Thermostat would look like this:
Can’t stand it Anger Don’t like it
Don’t care Calm
The simple questions we pose to challenge such thinking are:
- Why can’t you stand it?
- You CAN’T STAND it, or just don’t like it?
Hopefully people learn to answer “I can stand it. I just don’t like it”. Which is their right.
AWFULIZING and CAN’T STAND IT-ITIS naturally stem from elevating wants, preferences and desires to needs, necessities and demands, even to the level of air, water and food. The reason is simple. If someone was deprived or air, water or food for minutes, days or weeks respectively, it would be AWFUL, and they truly COULDN’T STAND IT. The proof would be that they would die.
Labeling and Damning Others
People have a right to dislike what others think, feel, say or do. The mistake they make is to LABEL AND DAMN the person, instead of simply disliking what they think, feel, say or do. That makes them more likely to get angry instead of just frustrated, irritated or annoyed, and makes needless conflict more likely, especially if the LABEL AND DAMN the person out loud, and to his/her face. LABELING AND DAMNING is blatant over generalization, like calling an apple “bad” just because it has a bruise, even though most of the apple is just fine. It’s condemning the doer instead of simply the deed. We can diagram it this way:
Label and Damn
Don’t care Calm
Here are simple questions to challenge Labeling and damning:
- Why are they ____ just because of that?
- They’re ____ or just did a ____ stupid thing?
- They’re ____ or just did something you didn’t like?
- They’re ____ or just fallible human beings like the rest of us?
Racism and Xenophobia
Racism and xenophobia are essentially LABELING AND DAMNING, and blatant over generalization. Using the apple metaphor, it’s essentially like saying, “That group has some ‘bad’ apples, so the whole bunch is ‘bad’ (over generalization). That person is part of that group, so he/she must be a ‘bad’ apple (over generalization)”. Hopefully by expressing it this way, the ludicrousness of racism and xenophobia is obvious.
Innate cognitive tendencies underlying racism, xenophobia
There are two innate cognitive tendencies that contribute to human beings LABELING AND DAMNING others. One is the innate cognitive tendency to note and attend to differences between us and others. It makes evolutionary sense that this tendency evolved because differences are more likely to be threats than similarities. The second is to generalize about experiences. That also has a survival component. If a particular person attacked you there is some logic to being wary of similar persons in the future. The problem arises when people are not as discriminating as they could or should be, and just go with their innate tendencies. It doesn’t help when there are others encouraging them to do so.
Cognitive dissonance – Venn Diagrams
The solution to this type of over-generalization is to create as much cognitive dissonance as possible. Sometimes this occurs naturally, as in military service, where someone a person previously labeled and damned saves that person’s life. One way to create such cognitive dissonance might be Venn Diagrams. With Venn Diagrams, there are two sets, and some overlap between them.
Starting at the DNA level and going up to wants, preferences and desires, human beings have much, much more in common than they do ways they differ. The problem is that they have that innate tendency to note and attend to differences. We can and should make every effort to identify and attend to the ways we are the same instead of the ways we differ. Unfortunately, we often have people encouraging others to note and attend to differences instead.
Put your behavior where you want your attitude to be
There is a technique called “Put your behavior where you want you want your attitude to be”. Remember that attitude is always the father of behavior, thoughts (attitudes) cause feelings not events, and a person’s behavior will tend to follow his/her emotions toward his/her life events. One simple and straightforward way to reduce needless conflict is to start, practice and rehearse talking in ways that will help prevent conflict. There are two types of messages: I Messages and YOU Messages. Practicing using I-Messages, especially when you dislike or disagree with someone else’s thoughts, feelings or behavior can be very helpful in preventing needless conflict.
YOU Messages are things like orders, threats, commands, criticisms, put downs and name-calling. The YOU is either stated, i.e. “You’re an idiot” or implied “Shut up!”. YOU Messages are also called SOLUTION messages because the person using then is trying to take away the other person’s right to freely choose away from them and dictating a solution to what they see as a problem. This will typically invite conflict needlessly. Human beings have an innate tendency to resist any attempts to control them, and will, often regardless of the potential consequences. YOU Messages often involve pointing a finger at another person. No one likes that either and people will often experience the urge to grab the finger. To sum it all up, YOU Messages are more likely to be perceived as threats, and to trigger anger (fight), especially if they are spoken in an angry way.
I Messages simply share information. For example, what we like or don’t like, want or don’t want, and perhaps how we feel. They leave it up to the other person what they want to do about the information we share, unlike YOU Messages that attempt to dictate their course of action. Practicing using phrases like “I want….”, “I don’t want….”, “I don’t like….” is a way to keep our THINK thermostat at the want, prefer, desire level. That in turn makes us more likely to see something as simply unpleasant, inconvenient and uncomfortable rather than awful, and more likely to just dislike something others say or do instead of telling ourselves we can’t stand it. As time goes by, our verbal behavior becomes where our attitude ends up, and both are in a much better place for avoiding needless anger and conflict.
Taking the wind out of their sails
There is one last thing we can do to avoid needless conflict. It’s called “Taking the wind out of their sails”. Remember that any perceived effort to control someone will typically trigger an innate tendency to resist or rebel, even do the opposite. YOU Messages can trigger this innate tendency. In the face of a perceived effort to control them, people will make themselves angry, and proverbially puff their chest out and be ready to fight. They often will say something to the effect of “You can’t tell me what to do”, the essence of which is “You don’t control me. You can’t make me do that. I can do whatever I want to” “Taking the wind out of their sails” involves stipulating that you don’t have control over them and don’t want to try to. For example, by saying things like “You’re right. You can do whatever you want. No one can stop you if you’re determined to do something. I only control me. I don’t control you or anyone else, and don’t want to. It’s totally your choice what you want to think, feel, say or do.”
To summarize, the only person we really ever control is us, what we think, feel, say and do. We always want at least one adult in the room. The best way to avoid needless conflict is to strive to be that adult. There are a number of ways we can do that. One is by striving to prevent anger rather than trying to manage it after the fact. To do that, it will help to avoid manufacturing threats where they don’t need to exist and avoid magnifying ones that do out of proportion to reality. One way to do that is to develop an internal locus of control – to remind ourselves that it’s not what others think, feel, say or do that upsets us. It’s what we choose to think about such things that does. No one upsets us, we upset ourselves. There is always more than one way to look at anything that happens or that others say or do, and it’s always our choice as to how we do. It helps to remember that it really is true that “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. Words are just EVENTS and don’t have the power that acts of violence do. However, our brain will treat perceived threats to our symbolic self like threats to life and limb. We can and need to separate the two. Choosing to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance will help us shrug off others negative comments. Choosing to have UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance will help temper our emotional response to what we don’t like or disagree with in others. Setting our THINK thermostats at want, preference and desire, and learning how to turn it down quickly should it go up to need, necessity and demand will also help us avoid manufacturing threats where they don’t exist and avoid magnifying ones that do out of proportion to reality. So will choosing to see things as unpleasant, inconvenient and uncomfortable instead of awful, to not like what happens instead of telling ourselves we can’t stand it, and to simply dislike a person’s behavior instead of labeling and damning him/her. Finally, we can put our (verbal) behavior where we want our attitude to be – use I Messages instead of YOU Messages. Our best hope of avoiding needless conflict is to work on learning to control our half of the Circle of Conflict – what we think, feel, say or do.