Practical Tips for the Brain in Conflict

As part of the BCAMI Symposium held June 8 and 9 2015 in Vancouver, Jean Greatbatch conducted a workshop entitled the “Neuroscience of Conflict”. Jean is an experienced mediator and arbitrator with a special focus on workplace conflict, a member of the board of Mediate BC Society and a busy conflict consultant. She completed her LLM in Conflict Resolution at Osgoode and wrote her thesis on the topic of how the brain deals with conflict. In this post I will provide some highlights of her fascinating and insightful presentation. In 90 minutes she managed to provide a great overview of the basic structure of our brains, what happens during conflict and helpful tips for process design.

“Human behaviour is a biological phenomenon because, ultimately, all theories about human behaviour are theories about the brain – an organ operating on physical principles that receives stimuli, makes computations, and directs behavioural outputs.”

Yarn and Todd-Jones

To understand human behaviour we need to understand our brains.

Did you know?

  • Our brains haven’t changed much since the Pleistocene
  • because survival meant living in groups human brains are hardwired for group harmony
  • The amygdala is the most primitive part of our brains and, when under stress, activates the “fight, flight or freeze” response (helpful when facing a sabre tooth tiger but it shuts down our ability to problem-solve).
  • The pre-frontal cortex is the most recently developed part of the brain and holds our rational thinking and analytical/problem-solving skills but is shut down when the amygdala is activated
  • The right and left sides of our brains operate differently and we need both to function
  • neural pathways create “automatic responses” from years of practice
  • memory is incredibly fallible
  • women tend to remember the details of a negative event; men tend to remember only the gist
  • mirror neurons cause us to mimic the behaviour and feel the emotions of others

Two Sides of our Brains:

  • The left brain prefers certainty and linear, orderly processes; the right brain is comfortable with uncertainty and can work with non-linear processes
  • The left brain likes to categorize things (label and assume); the right brain can see situations holistically
  • The left brain is activated by anger; the right brain can inhibit over-reaction
  • The left brain tends to blame others (it releases dopamine when we blame and we feel good!)
  • The right brain can do collaborative problem-solving, recognizes emotion and feels empathy
  • The left brain will “fill in” gaps in memory and draw mistaken conclusions

Based on this presentation, here are 5 things that I realized I need to remember in managing conflict:

  1. Disengage the amygdala: If a party is stressed they cannot participate in rational problem-solving discussions. We need to help them to “calm the amygdala” so they don’t act on the impulse to run from the room! Signs include yelling, withdrawing, leaving, crying, flushed face etc. Tools include taking time to build rapport and trust, taking a walk, encouraging self-talk, deep-breathing and muscle relaxation exercises.
  2. Multiple truths: To save room our brain prunes itself and discards memories that it decides are not significant. Memories with high emotional intensity are more likely to be retained. The brain also fills in the gaps in our memories. This means that here can be more than one “truth” – two parties can remember the same event very differently. It would be wrong to immediately conclude that the other party is lying or deceiving the other. As Jean said, when different versions of events are given, welcome the difference and explore it further.
  3. Old dogs can learn new tricks! Recent research on “plasticity” confirms that our brains can build new neural pathways to change our habitual behaviour and this does not disappear with age (what a relief). That said, it takes significant discipline and practice (consider quitting smoking or learning to write with our opposite hand).
  4. Mirror neurons can help: The parties’ mirror neurons will be affected by how we behave. Use constructive language, show compassion on your face, sit forward, smile and nod. Model the tone of voice, body language and behaviour that you expect the parties to use. To encourage understanding and empathy it can help to ask participants to name an emotion they felt at a key time and to show it on their face.
  5. The Blame Game: If the parties are stuck in a “blame game” remember that the left brain reward centre releases dopamine (a pleasing sensation) when we blame someone else. It is our brain’s attempt to release stress. Rather than condemning a party for blaming we can use this knowledge to help to shift the parties to a place of understanding. One approach is to activate the right brain’s award centre by asking the party to spend a moment viewing a photo of someone they love.

This was a rich session which certainly inspired me to study in more depth how our brains operate in situations of conflict. This science can help us to be better conflict resolvers/managers/engagers. Thank you Jean!


Note: materials from all the sessions are available at the symposium website.


  1. Hi Jean,

    I really appreciate what you have shared. Such clarity, insight and practical knowledge you have on this topic. It was very meaningful for me in as much as all I have ever read was flight or fight. On some occasions, I have learned that flight is an option. Fighting was always just too much for me. When you added freeze that was a totally new one because typically in high-stress situations that is exactly what I do. Years ago I rented out a basement suite in my house in Calgary to a couple of guys. One night I heard what sounded like a gunshot one evening. I got up and looked out onto the street and saw nothing. It was a sound like a gunshot that seemed to come from deep…nearby. It never for a moment crossed my mind that it came from within my home, but at midnight when I was awakened by a knock on my kitchen door by the guy’s roommate in the basement that he had come home to find out that his roommate had blown his brains out with a shotgun…oh my God. He called the police…they surrounded the house. He was out on the front lawn waiting for them. They arrived with guns drawn, forced him down on the ground as though he was the suspect. They came in the house. I sat down at the kitchen table with Kevin’s girlfriend cause I knew we weren’t going anywhere. (Kevin was the roommate that called the police.) It was late, I was tired and starting a new job in the morning. I just sat there feeling like none of this was real. I was as you said Jean, just frozen in time. Later Kevin said he felt like I just sat there disconnected like I didn’t care. For me that was the opposite of how I felt….scared, overwhelmed, traumatized… and like you said “frozen”. Wow, it was kind of a nirvana to have a savant put words to feelings and emotions…which released me from feeling inhuman and deserving of judgment. I can trace this reaction back to the trauma I experienced as a child when my alcoholic father would come home at night and beat me and anyone else on his hit list. But it gets better. My husband and daughter got into a big altercation one night and her boyfriend (who had had similar childhood traumatic experiences like I had) just sat at the table while they had it out and said nothing. Catch twenty-two was we were blamed for doing nothing, like we didn’t and were taking sides. Wow, giddy up, let’s just feel bad all over again. So Jean, if flight or fight is a normal response, bless you for knowing and sharing the third option which certainly helps me feel …oh I don’t know…more normal.

    With much gratitude,