Updated: Jun 2
PART 1: RUPTURE, FIGHT, FREEZE
This weekend I co-chaperoned my daughter’s volleyball tournament. A mom was upset about one of my decisions (her daughter's room assignment, though the details don't matter) and went into fight, expressing outrage and blame, while I went into a curious blend of freeze and mindfulness. I’ll call my response a mindful semi-freeze.
In that interaction, my communication skills felt useless. All that training, poof. As Mike Tyson famously said, "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
My co-chaperone responded with an impressive fight herself via articulate, vigorous comebacks. She was a FU*# NO to the verbal assault.
It was all over in a hot, fiery minute as I stood there, breathing and stunned. So much damage occurred in just one minute of fight.
While fight is a normal nervous system response when we feel threatened, it has the potential to do the most damage. It’s also the most stigmatized in the work place: once an employee has a reputation for being disregulated, hostile, and angry, it takes a long time to change that perception.
So how do you remember your training when the situation is unexpected and either you and/or the other person are disregulated? When someone is in fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop, we are in survival mode, not in the prefrontal cortex where we can access the curiosity required for a successful conversation.
In retrospect, if I’d been able to spring out of my semi-freeze, I might have said, “Let’s talk again when we’re all calm, so we can have a real conversation. Text you in 10.” This buys time, acknowledges the tension, and shares the responsibility.
PART 2: REPAIR
As I reflected on what my next step might be, my focus shifted to repair: What would be effective, given our different communication styles—along with the fact that no one was obligated to repair? How could I be in alignment with my values and practice nervous system informed communication, even if others didn't?
One practice was to step away from the temptation of blaming her for my emotions and discomfort. Here's what helped:
• Remembering our shared humanity and North Star: We are all protective moms, who just want the best experience for our daughters.
• Accepting that just because I want to repair doesn’t mean she wants to or has to...it takes two. It’s not in my control to change someone’s conflict management or avoidance style.
For nervous system informed communication between two people to occur, it takes:
• The willingness to take a beat, breathe, pause, and reflect - in real time;
• The willingness to own your emotions and not blame others--or cast yourself as a victim, so you can be present;
• All parties to value and cultivate the skills for implementing the above
After two days of tension, with nonverbal energy daggers flying at me, we found a way back to friendliness and folded a picnic blanket together.
It took a lot longer than if we'd both used repair tools available in Nervous System Informed Communication.
PART 3: PREVENTION
In the workplace, variations of this fight occur all the time (again, details don’t matter). Avoid these disastrous exchanges through training in Nervous System Informed Leadership and Communication.
There are effective, succinct tools and mindsets to avoid these energy drains and disruptions to psychological safety. There are emotional intelligence tools to quickly metabolize the interpersonal dynamics going on, and prevent them from destroying the trust required for productivity, creativity, and innovation.
While we can never predict the punch in the mouth that triggers us and redirects all of our resources toward finding safety, we can become better at recognizing patterns and using tools. If all employees have access to them, the precious resources of time, energy, and attention are directed toward work instead of restoring safety.