Conflict Communication (ConCom): A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication
by Rory Miller
YMAA Publication Center
Paperback, 168 pages, $14 on Amazon.com, Kindle, $8.99
Reviewed by Gila Hayes
If a book about human communication seems an odd topic for a Network book review, consider this: use of force incidents often result from strained relationships with neighbors, and some of our greatest fears are of attacks by disgruntled people at work or school, dangers from strangers brought into the fold at church, or discomfort with an odd guy or gal at the edge of your social group. We worry about road rage, but some communication–verbal or non verbal–nearly always occurs, creating opportunities to divert impending violence if we know how to manipulate the situation. Conflict Communication by Rory Miller introduces the requisite skills.
Miller introduces, “If you don’t see a problem, you can’t solve it. But how you see a problem completely controls the options you have. Each way of seeing an object or situation gives you different options...” This is true of violence, so he explains differences between social conflict, in which you deal with a person, compared to predation in which you are merely a resource or a toy. Different strategies are indicated by the type of violence offered.
Conflict Communication’s first fifteen pages wean the reader from emotional judgments of “good” or “bad,” because those discourage solutions, Miller stresses. A good example is his explanation of “othering,” the mental switch by which we rationalize harming humans who aren’t “like us,” and while he explains that this is common to predation, “othering” also removes inhibitions to fighting back. Eliminating hatred or empathy frees you to use force without hesitation and in the aftermath, reduces post-incident psychological disturbances, he writes.
Next, he outlines the three-brain theory. This is a review for die-hard Miller readers, but to synopsize, he dubs the hindbrain, that part tasked with physical survival, the lizard, long called “reptilian.” The limbic system, emotional and fast to react, he nicknames the monkey, while calling the neo cortex, capable of reasoning, the human brain. The first two are responsible for most quick reactions, many based on survival priorities.
The need for a community or to be in a group is one of the strongest of human needs, Miller explains. This drives many actions and reactions, whether on an individual level or between groups. “Your natural responses to conflict are subconscious, scripted, and for the good of the group,” he stresses, illustrating the principle with productive and counter-productive scripts common in daily interactions. These are the product of the monkey brain, he asserts. The limbic system so equates change with death that even a hurtful script feels safer to the monkey brain. Likewise, the reptilian brain concludes that past occurrences didn’t kill you so repeating even a bad script is preferable to chancing an unknown. Only the reasoning human brain risks change. The bottom line? We don’t deviate from common scripts for fear that we will not survive change.
Scripted behaviors are driven by emotion and kick in before the rational mind catches on, Miller continues. How can the human brain grab control and move from emotion into reason? Instead of trying to deescalate aggression in others, Miller urges readers to first deescalate their own reactions. Amongst a wealth of coaching we lack space here to pass along, Miller teaches that triggering the human brain requires active listening and recognizing emotion, especially anger, as a red flag. “This means your neo cortex, which could solve the problem, is off-line. You are physically incapable of making a good decision if your monkey brain has been triggered…Conversely if you trigger some one else’s monkey brain all the facts, data and supporting evidence in the world will not help,” he warns.
Hints that your rational brain is not in charge? You feel emotion, start to like or dislike the person you’re interacting with, the focus shifts from solving a problem to proving you were right or making sure you get the credit, making excuses or justifications and worrying more about how something is done than that it gets done. Recognizing these signs is important because, even when dealing with genuinely detestable people, becoming emotional disengages the one part of your brain you could use to manipulate them, he urges.
Miller teaches that scripts are so effective at inciting conflict because the script’s roles–be that victim, boss, subordinate, student, savior or something else–do not honor individual personality, identity and life experience. The emotional responses a script triggers make being involved in a script feel intensely personal. It is not; it is role-play and you can change roles, he suggests. Abandoning our perceived identity and assuming a role is one of the hardest things for a human to do, he acknowledges, “We feel it is not a real win if we win by being someone else.”
What initiates scripted conflict? Miller writes that certain words carry great power, and one of the strongest is the word “you.” It makes it personal, activating the limbic system and shutting out the rational brain. “Drop ‘you’…It’s a challenge…As much as possible without seeming insincere or stilted, use the word ‘we.’ It’s still tribal, but helps to prevent othering and encourages cooperation,” he advises.
Beyond our responsibilities for conflict, Miller writes that scripts are highly effective in both predation and social violence, adding that an aggressor can be extremely persistent. Each jab makes it less likely that the intended victim can stay rational. Whether predatory or social, the initiator needs an emotional reaction. A small slip into script participation is all he or she needs to justify the harm they want to inflict. “You must recognize it and spit out the hook,” Miller advises. “Take a deep breath. Acknowledge your internal state. Get back to the problem.”
“Say, ‘Sorry, I was starting to get angry for some reason. So what should we do about the situation…’ It acknowledges the monkey trap but refuses to play. Does not make it personal (no ‘you’ in there) and focuses back on the problem. It even uses ‘we’ as a way to build a perceived unity,” he coaches.
Miller’s long segment on conflict within groups ends with a warning that while much of social conflict does happen at the “Belongingness” and “Esteem” levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this is not true of predatory violence, because the predator is not operating out of the limbic system. Predation is planned and executed from the human brain, and just because the victim must be hooked into responding from the monkey brain, do not make the mistake of thinking you can manipulate the predator in the same way, he warns.
He breaks predation into two categories, the first being predation for survival by one who desperately needs your resources. The second he terms the self-actualized predator, ranging from one who creates drama and social conflict for entertainment to process predators who enjoy hurting people, feel no shame, and use ritualized, sadistic violence, Miller defines.
Both select victims “unlikely to injure them. Someone who looks, moves, and talks like he or she won’t fight. The meek and timid, but also the overly socialized and polite.” The victim also needs to be hooked into limbic system responses, to further the predator’s physical safety. Script manipulation taught for coping with social conflict is dangerous against a process predator, Miller stresses. “If the person is working from another level, whether predatory (human brain) or in the lizard brain of panic, your social skills will not work,” he warns.
“Predators must be handled with human logic. Not the monkey logic of, ‘Let’s be reasonable about this’ but the cold mathematical logic of, ‘You won’t get what you want and what you do get will cost more than you are willing to pay.’”
In closing, it is important to consider at length how to put the book’s lessons to work. Miller urges realistic goals and expectations: “This is not about making your human brain so strong that it can control your limbic system. No simple handbook can beat that much evolution. This is about two things: preventing other people from getting into their monkey brains, or, if it is too late, appeasing the limbic system so you can engage with their human brains, and first and foremost appeasing your monkey brain so it shuts up and lets the humans talk.”
This compact 168-page book contains many strategies we can use to ease social conflict and avoid physical threats. I have only touched upon some of the high points of its instruction. Like the blind men and the elephant, what the reader takes away will be viewed through the lens of his or her life experience, but I am convinced that it contains important lessons for all of us.
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