Despite the picture, I’m not talking about conflict and little marching insects, but the other kind of ANTs–Automatic Negative Thoughts–marching inside your head.
Psychiatrist Daniel Amen has done extensive research on brain chemistry and health. Through taking MRI scans of thousands of people’s brains and comparing the scans to their self reported health and well- being, he has concrete scientific data showing that negative thoughts, particularly extended patterns of negativity, hurt our brains, our health, our intelligence, and our decision making.
According to Dr. Amen, when we focus on what we hate, we become unhappy and make bad decisions. We also make negative assumptions about others. And, unchecked, these ANTs can poison our entire lives.
Although his work doesn’t focus on conflict per say, his findings are applicable to personal and professional conflict and its resolution. He discusses varies types of ANTs, including:
- Absolute thinking (always/never).
- Focusing on what’s wrong or negative.
- Fortune telling—focus on the worst possible future possibility.
- Mind reading—being sure you know what someone is thinking and what their motivations are.
- Labeling—Placing negative and limiting labels on another person or ones self.
- Taking everything that happens personally.
- Blaming, which he calls the most poisonous ANT of all.
For example, if we or our clients think—“what is the use of talking to her, she’ll never understand,” or “I can discuss this project problem because he’ll just yell,” “I’m just not good enough to do this work,” or “I hate them forever; it’s all their fault we have this problem”, we set up an expectation or self fulfilling outcome which is very difficult to change.
Mediators and conflict coaches can help clients see the false limits of belief patterns like these. A willingness to see others positively, as humans like themselves, and an openness to new ways of thinking and behaving, leads to a better way of interacting that resolves differences and is less likely to create new conflicts.
But how can we get rid of these poisonous ANTs and shift these patterns? There is no quick fix, but here is a way to start:
- Bring these automatic negative thoughts to conscious awareness.
- Identify the kind of ANTs.
- Check to see if these thoughts are true.
- Affirm more positive possibilities and outcomes and act as if those are true even if we don’t truly believe it.
- Repeat frequently as needed.
- Watch what happens.
Whether other people realize it or not, they intuitively sense our attitudes. Our intention has power. When we focus on what’s wrong, our ANTs multiply.
When we focus on forgiveness and solutions, our ANTs decrease.
When we learn to look for the best in others, we’re far more likely to find it and see it reflected back. And, as a bonus, according to Dr. Amen, if we focus on gratitude and on what we love, we will be more coordinated, less depressed, happier and more intelligent.
It is ongoing work to monitor our ANT situation, but as we become more conscious and affirming, we can more skillfully navigate relationships and successfully move through misunderstandings and conflict.