Monkey Brain or Lizard Brain? How Do You Do Conflict?

Monkey Brain or Lizard Brain. How do you 'do' conflict?

Family arguments are a way of life. We live, we love, we argue, we make up. Research has made it clear that the way we argue carries more heft in determining relationship quality than whether or not we argue, or how much. Fighting filthy will bring us undone. Fighting fair, on the other hand will keep relationships intact.

People and families have a characteristic way of fighting and each is fed by a different part of the brain. New research is challenging people to look at how their brain influences how they fight, with a view to learning more adaptive ways to engage in conflict and avoid the scalding heat of battle. 

The Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution has developed a test for this very purpose. The ‘Monkey v Lizard’ quiz was designed to give people a better idea of what part of their brain they are using when they argue. With this information, people are then well positioned to make deliberate choices around how they ‘do’ conflict. 

Monkey v Lizard. Now to explain …

There are two parts of our brain that are called into play when we argue. The Old Brain (the lizard) is the primal ‘fight or flight’ response. All action and not a lot of thought. The other is called the New Brain (the monkey) and involves cognitive (thought) processes such as empathy, reflection and understanding. 

The Old Brain is driven to protect us from threat by physically preparing us to fight for our  life or run for it. It can come in handy when there’s, say, a bus hurtling towards us and we need to get out of the way. It’s not so handy when the issue is that of Oreos, or more specifically, that someone has taken the last one.

When there’s no need for a physical response (no need to fight, no need to flee), the cortisol builds up. As this happens, the thinking part of the New Brain that empathises, reflects and understands, gets sidelined in favour of the more primitive, automatic, unthinking part. When this happens, there will likely be yelling, personal sledging and aggression. Nobody listens and nobody is heard. Disrespect will be a hallmark.

The New Brain (the monkey), on the other hand is the thinker. When this part of the brain is at the helm, we’re likely to slow things down before we respond, check things out, reason, listen, reflect, empathise and communicate. When the New Brain drives behaviour, people feel heard, validated and understood. This doesn’t mean everyone agrees – not at all. What it means is that people and points of view are respected and relationships remain intact. There’s less ‘agro’ and more respect.

And now what to do about it.

The first step to bringing harmony to the home is being aware of what you’re doing that could do with some tweaking. Just because you’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean you have keep doing them that way. By being aware of what you’re doing, behaviour becomes less automatic and you start to realise you have choices about how to respond. It’s always good to learn that you can do something better – it means you’re human – and a pretty good one if you’re open to change. 

Ready to give it a go?

You’ll find the Monkey v Lizard Quiz here. It’s quick – like, 10 questions quick – and you’ll be learning something about yourself in the process. What’s not to love about that?

 If your house is getting a bit hot headed, the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution has a website with free resources and practical tips. You’ll find their excellent resources here. There’s advice for parents and carers and separate advice for young people. They also tailor advice according to the issue.

 

Monkey Brain or Lizard Brain? How do you do conflict?

(Image: Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution)

An easy way to calm the lizard.

If a battle feels looming, one of the ways to engage the new, thinking part of the brain and calm the old, primal part of the brain is by deep, slow breathing. This has been found to lower cortisol levels and reverse the fight or flight response. It’s why taking short space from each other before things overheat is important. It lets the Old Brain (the lizard) disengage and the New Brain (the monkey) come into play.

And finally …

Conflict is a way of life. In a house with flourishing, independent, curious minds it’s going to happen.

When kids are involved, it’s good to think that we’ve brought them up to think for themselves and to know their own mind. When you raise independent minds who are curious, strong, independent and questioning, there are going to be times when those minds differ from ours. Though it’s hard to be grateful for that when their acquiescence would make things so much easier, the truth is, it’s something to be proud of. What that depends on, of course, is that way the conflict plays out.

When people are not heard, acknowledged and validated, relationships fall apart. If this is something you’re struggling with in your family, take the test with your tribe to first show them that there is a different way of being. Then, have a look at the resources in the link. All change starts with awareness. Being open to change and the impact you have on people, when you’re fighting or otherwise, is the essence of healthy relating and the key to healthy, full relationships.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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