Fight or Flight & Other So-So Responses to Conflict

Fight, Flight, Freeze—that what neurobiologists say are our ancestral (and current) unconscious response choices in a threatening or conflict situation. I recently came across a similar expression in a spiritual recovery book: blaming, running, or freezing.  In my opinion, blaming captures more exactly how people tend to respond to conflict and disagreements than fighting does. And some conflict experts, including Cinnie Noble, add people pleasing to the list.

Running or Flight is a way to avoid the conflict. When people don’t have skills to navigate through a disagreement, they may rely on this avoidance approach and physically leave even when it doesn’t work or just postpones the inevitable.

Freezing is a way to try and stay invisible, to take no action that could call attention to yourself. But it can feel paralyzing and vulnerable as well.

Blaming or fight:

In a conflict, It is easy to feel you are being attacked, and it is instinctive to defensively turn around and put the blame or responsibility on the other person.

Pleasing: If you can’t bear to have someone angry at you (even if you’re angry at them), you may try to please or placate them as a way of managing your discomfort, rather than truly dealing with the conflict.

Every one of these initial responses are very human and natural when you don’t know what else to do, but none of them are usually effective in truly resolving the conflict. They just postpone it, paper it over, or even make it worse.

So how can you avoid  being hijacked by blaming, running, freezing, or pleasing in a conflict? Here are a few suggestions:

Pre/post conflict work:

  • When you’re not in a conflicted moment, get support from a coach or counselor or class to understand your typical responses and what past experiences have led to this response.

During a disagreement:

  • Breathe—nothing is as bad if you can breathe in and out.
  • Name your instinctive response to yourself rather than simply acting it out. “I want to run away.” Or “I’m starting to grovel,” for example.
  • Remember those instinctive responses may not be the best to resolving the conflict.
  • Do your best to stay present, listen and speak your truth.

If you still want to blame, run, freeze, or please, be gentle with yourself. I know that I have learned how to stay present in conflicts better and have taught these skills to students and clients, but it takes a lot of practice and repetition to change your initial neurobiological response to one that actually works.


Lorraine Segal

Lorraine Segal, M.A. is a Conflict Management and Communication Consultant, Coach, and Trainer. Through her own business, Conflict Remedy, Ms. Segal works with corporations and non-profits as well as governmental entities and individuals to promote harmonious and productive workplaces.  She is a consultant and trainer for County of Sonoma. And, at Sonoma… MORE

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