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The Brain During An Argument - Which Side Are You?

09/06/2015 11:59 BST | Updated 08/06/2016 10:59 BST

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Arguments are a way of life. We live, we love, we argue, we make up. Sometimes though, arguments cause breakage - of relationships, families and people.

The more we can understand about how we argue, the more deliberate we can be in responding to conflict in such a way as to preserve the relationship.

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 a relationship undone. Fighting fair will keep the connection close and 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 the way 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 vs Lizard' quiz was designed to give people a better idea of what part of their brain they are using when they argue. It's a quick quiz (like, 10 questions quick) and is based around solid research. With the information, people are better positioned to make deliberate choices around how they 'do' conflict. Awareness of a different way to do things is key to opening up options and inviting a new way of being.

Monkey Brain vs Lizard Brain. Wait. What?

There are two parts of the brain that are called into play during an argument. The Old Brain (the lizard) is the primal 'fight or flight' response. It's all action and not a lot of thought. The other is 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 or flee), cortisol (the stress hormone) builds up. When 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. As a result, there's likely to be yelling, personal sledging and aggression. Nobody listens and nobody is heard. Disrespect will be a hallmark.

The New Brain 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.

An Easy Way to Calm the Lizard.

The first step to bringing harmony to relationships is being aware that there is a different way to do things. With this awareness, behaviour becomes less automatic and there's an opening up of choices about how to respond and how to 'be'.

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 lowers cortisol levels and reverses 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, particularly in families. In a house with flourishing, independent, curious minds it's going to happen.

When kids are involved, it's good to know they've been brought up to think for themselves and to know their own mind. When you raise independent minds who are strong, independent and questioning, there are going to be times when those minds differ and clash - but the clash doesn't have to be a fiery one.

The same goes for any relationship. We're all different, with our own minds, our own wants, needs, loves, hates, desires and fears. Though it's hard to be grateful for that when the acquiescence of those we love would make things so much easier, the truth is that these differences are the essence of being human. What the connection with other depends on is the way the conflict plays out.

When people are not heard, acknowledged and validated, relationships fall apart. All change starts with awareness. Being open to change and the impact we have on people, when we're fighting or otherwise, is the essence of healthy relating and the key to healthy, full relationships.

(Image Credit: Shutterstock)