Is Fight or Flight the Only Way to Resolve Conflict?

In my previous blog post – Zebras Aren’t the Only Ones Who Don’t Get Ulcers – Robert Sapolsky suggests that one difference between us human animals and other animals is we do not resolve conflict in the same manner. Animals basically fight or flee. We humans do have a fight or flight reaction.

And we humans have something unique. We have language: thoughts, moods and emotions to contend with. In conflict, we are challenged to see past the symphony of body sensations, emotions and thoughts. We have recollections of the past and projections into future.  We have emotions of anger, resentment or sadness and the constriction in our body that these emotions produce.

As the baby zebra flees from a cheetah, the herd kicks and scatters. The black stripes create a fast-moving optical illusion, and the cheetah has extreme difficulty focusing in on the baby zebra.* If the cheetah could catch the baby zebra, it would. Cheetah are solidary hunters and quickly assess if the energy required will result in a kill. If not, they immediately stop and the prey goes free. If it were just this easy for us human animals.

Yet we do create our human illusions. We pretend, when strong negative emotions appear, that everything is fine. Yet inside, we are seething. We may have learned to use sadness or hurt to get attention or make the other “feel badly” for hurting our feelings. We might tell ourselves everything is or will be fine and then it happens again…those darn pesky feelings and emotions that seem to keep reappearing. Over time, headaches, neck pain, lower back pain appear as those emotions are stored away in our body.

We are currently a nation and a world with deep feelings on many topics being addressed by the current Administration. As a nation, we find ourselves strongly divided on many topics. The Women’s March earlier this year was remarkably peaceful. This seems to be the exception. Strong and righteous polarization of opinions, views and interpretations of events seem destructive and frightening.

Is there a way forward when strong negative judgments and emotions rule us? What other options are available to us human animals that zebra and other animals do not have? How, other than fight or flight (pretend or ignore), can we resolve conflict?

The Sensei (teacher) where I train Aikido often has said violence happens because people do not know how to resolve conflict. In my work, I resolve conflict.

Much of the time, the primary source of conflict begins with ourselves. As a somatic coach, I ask questions – what happens automatically when you are confronted with a situation that is “uncomfortable”? How does uncomfortable feel? Where do you feel those uncomfortable sensations in your body? Is there a story connected with those sensations? Are there additional negative emotions – sadness, fear, anger – that want to come to the surface and you are running from them or pretending not to feel?

Our ability to feel our body’s sensations is a big step forward in resolving conflict. Most of us are unaware or not well schooled in feeling and naming our bodily sensations such as tingling, warm, tight, cold or pulsing. We may feel tightness in our chest, and quickly an emotion called “fear” appears. No one wants to feel “fear,”’ so we quickly clamp down our jaw or tighten other muscles to stop the sensation. All that is left then is the story of being “afraid” when feeling a certain set of sensations.

The great news is that we can learn to feel and experience those sensations as energy and be present to and with them. This is where learning to be uncomfortable comes in. At first, it is uncomfortable. Memories, fear…all those pesky emotions are there to be greeted, not run from. As we breathe into them, we learn to return to our center, our home, where we know we are safe and greeted by our resilience.

From our center, the home of our resilience, we can listen to the other, see their perspective without giving up ours. We are dignified in ourselves and dignify the other by not having to defend our position or attack theirs. From our center home, we can be curious about the other and open to seeing the world from their perspective. Seeing someone’s perspective is not the same as agreeing to it.

It is an act of respect and inclusiveness that two different perspectives can coexist in the same space. When compassion and curiosity appear in at least one of the partners, a unique space of possibility opens. It takes only one to shift the dynamic. Learn to be the change you want…you can do it.

*Note: The relationship between zebra and cheetah is symbiotic. Cheetah’s favorite food, according to a Tanzanian bush guide, is baby zebra. Cheetah are solitary, and when the mother has cubs, she must hunt daily to keep herself in the required state of nutrition to feed her cubs. She leaves her cubs unattended while she hunts. While away, her cubs can become prey to lions, zebra and other predators. Adult zebra will kill baby cheetahs in hopes of eliminating a major predator of their young. Sometimes the cheetah, having to travel great distances to find food, will lose track of her cubs.

There are small numbers of cheetah left in the wild. This is not due to poaching but to their solitary life style. For the female, finding a mate then raising cubs alone are difficult and strong contributing factors to the diminishing number of cheetah left in the wild. They are amazingly strong, beautiful and graceful creatures.

In January 2016, I had the good fortune to visit Tanzania. I was forever altered being in the wide-open spaces where plants and animals co-existed in a unique balance. If there were native tribes, their gratefulness for the animals they killed only for food and clothing, was beautiful. I saw harmony and mutual respect among those who share the land in a very enlightening manner. I look to bring that ease and grace into my coaching.


  1. Danielle Prusoff on October 15, 2017 at 6:59 am

    Reading and practicing some of what is outlined here was really supportive today amidst a minor tiff with the hubs. Uncomfortable, yes, but necessary. There is another side if I’m willing to fully experience the discomfort. The only way out is through. Thanks for the gentle and eloquent reminder.

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