Fight or flight

As humans, instinct and evolution has taught us to protect ourselves whenever we feel threatened.

Our amygdala, one on each side of the brain, are sometimes referred to as the brain’s ‘smoke detector.’ They are responsible for the body’s emergency response. This was useful for running away from sabre toothed tigers, but can be unhelpful in the modern day workplace.

Have you ever lost control of your emotions or said something in the heat of the moment that you later regretted? Or seen a colleague do the same? If so, you have probably experienced an ‘amygdala hijacking.’

When this happens, your entire system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. Even after the conflict incident is over, these hormones stay pumping through your body for several hours. Long term, this can affect your physical and mental wellness, as well as sabotaging your ability to work effectively.

The good news is that you can learn practical skills and change the way your brain reacts to emotional triggers. When you practice simple Mindfulness techniques, you can down-regulate your amygdala and change a lifetime of stress reactivity.

Conflict at work – is your body giving you away?

Learning to manage how we physically react to confrontation is essential to our effectiveness and professionalism. If we can remain ‘in neutral,’ confronting but not attacking, then we make our negotiating position much stronger.

A large part of our response in non-verbal. Body language, gestures and expressions can happen without us noticing. Like in poker, we have certain ‘tells’ that can give away our fear, anger or nervousness.

Breath & Voice

When we are defensive, our breath becomes shallow and our voice tightens into a higher register. This can convey our anxiety to others.

Face & Body

Does your face turn hot and red if you are angry? Can you hear your heart racing when you experience fear? Anxiety can also present as stomach pain or feelings of nausea.


Do your eyes widen in disbelief? Do you roll your eyes when you are frustrated? Are you conscious of your eye movements and what they show others about your thoughts and feelings?


Boredom can be signified by shaking your head, yawning, tapping your foot or chewing your pen. Defensiveness can manifest as crossed arms or legs, clenched hands or squeezing the arms of your chair.

If we can be aware of and manage our physical tells, we seem more calm and in control of the situation to others.

Calming the brain – mindfulness and calming techniques

Mindfulness is a great technique to use during conflict, overriding our natural fight or flight response. It allows us to stay in control, cool and professional.

Being mindful in the middle of a conflict takes practice. Here are some quick tips:

Step 1 – Be aware of your body’s cues

You might notice a change in your voice, a tightening in your stomach, or wish to run away. Once you recognise these cues, you can find ways consciously to relax.

Step 2 – Use grounding techniques

‘Grounding’ techniques can help you stay focused, and reduce anxiety about what might happen next. Try pressing your feet against the floor or your hands against the desk. Focus on the physical connection, not your anxious thoughts.

Step 3 – Breathe

Focus on the rhythm and smoothness of your breathing. This will reduce your levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Inhale to the count of 4 and exhale to the count of 6 to establish a calming rhythm.

Step 4 – Take your time

Once you have calmed your thoughts, you should be able to keep your responses measured. Take a pause before responding. Think about what you want to say. It’s fine to ask for a moment to consider. This will ensure you appear focused and in control.