Engaging the right part of your brain when in conflict

Most of the time when you are arguing with your partner you do so because you want to be connected, to be really understood and listened to. In order to be able to talk to each other effectively, i.e. to listen to the other and to be listened to, both partners need to be in a receptive rather than a reactive state.

The bit about the human brain

When our nervous system goes into a reactive mode our fight/flight/freeze responses get activated which make it neurologically impossible for us to be able to positively connect with another person. The parts of the brain that get activated in this state are older in evolutionary terms, the brain stem and limbic system. The old brain is hardwired for automatic reactions that don’t require thinking therefore allowing us to react very quickly when we perceive to be in danger. The sensory data from our brain gets the body into motion; it requires us to run, to fight back or to play dead depending on what seems to be the best strategy for survival at the time. We share this part of our anatomy, the “reptilian brain” (brain stem) and the “old mammalian brain” (limbic system) with all other mammals and reptiles. 

The new part of the brain, also called the “new mammalian brain” developed later in evolutionary terms with the appearance of primates, the cerebral cortex. In particular the frontal part of the cortex allows us to assess a situation cognitively and to moderate some of our instinctual reactions in our old brain. Our prefrontal cortex is what distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal world. The prefrontal cortex does not only enable us to think, analyse and evaluate it also allows to reflect, i.e. to have an awareness of our thoughts and feeling states.

Reactive mode: Fight/flight/freeze

While we are consciously aware to some extent of the workings of your cerebral cortex, most of the functioning of our old brain happens on an unconscious level. Our reptilian brain evaluates external stimuli in terms of whether we need to run away from someone, have sex with them, look after them, submit to them, attack them or whether we are able to be nurtured by them. These assessments are made within milliseconds.

If you feel that you may be attacked by another person physically or emotionally, your old brain will go into a reactive state. It will tell you to fight back, run away or to freeze not being able to respond at all. You will notice in your body that your heart starts beating, your muscles feel tense and your blood temperature increases. You are in a state of high alert. In conflict situations where you don’t feel safe it is therefore not possible for you to be receptive to what is being said by somebody else as your thinking brain is not activated.

John Gottmann, renowned for his work on marital relationships, identified what he called the “four horses of the apocalypse” in relationships. All of these behaviours match the fight/flight/freeze response:

  • Criticising your partner with global character assassinations or generalised comments such as “you always” as if there was something wrong with their personality. Criticism is very corroding in the long run for an intimate relationship and particularly damaging to children. (You are fight mode)
  • Showing contempt for your partner and taking the moral high ground; attacking either actively or in a passive aggressive way: insulting, name calling, sarcastic remarks or gestures such as rolling your eyes or shaking your head. (You are in fight mode)
  • Being defensive and warding off the attack: showing rightful indignation or regarding yourself as the victim, responding to a criticism with a counter criticism, complaining that “it’s not fair” or repeating yourself without actually listening to what is being said. (You are in flight or freeze mode)
  • Stonewalling your partner by withdrawing physically or emotionally from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. This can involve staying silent, giving monosyllabic answers, sulking, changing the subject or simply walking out of the room. (You are in flight or freeze mode)

Receptive mode: Engaging the prefrontal cortex

In any relationship there will be conflict and there is nothing inherently wrong with anger. However, in order to feel heard and to get what you want from your partner it helps to try to engage the prefrontal cortex of our brain more which helps us to be more receptive, empathic and able to respond in a constructive and positive way.

In order to be more receptive to others it helps to have an understanding of your own responses and to notice when your old brain is activated. Notice when your adrenaline starts pumping around your body, your heart beats faster, you get tunnel vision and can’t process information very well or you want to withdraw or attack in order to shut down negativity.

When in this state of mind you won’t be able to resolve conflict. Particularly when feeling flooded, i.e. overwhelmed with your partner’s demands, you won’t be able to creatively problem solve. Noticing your internal state will help you to take a break and to signal to your partner that the conversation has to end for now. By the same token if you notice that your partner cannot be receptive allow them to take a break when they need it too. Both of you need to be receptive in order to resolve your issue.

Take a break of at least 20 minutes and in this time allow for your negative and distressing thoughts to fade away. It helps to do de-stressing activities that deactivate your fight/flight/freeze response. This may include for example breathing deeply into your abdomen, relaxing your body through a muscle tensing/relaxing technique such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, to visualise a pleasant place for you or to go for a bath.

In the long term you will benefit from doing daily meditation exercises which help you to get in touch with your emotional and mental landscape in a better way and to learn to engage the reflective properties of your prefrontal cortex more.

A simple communication model to address difficult issues (based on Harville Hendrix's Imago approach):

1. Make an appointment to discuss the issue you would like to resolve. Talk only for a limited time (1 hour maximum, start with shorter periods).

2. Each takes on the role of ‘speaker’ and ‘listener’ in turns. The speaker talks for an agreed time, e.g. 5 min, and then you swap over.

3. The listener periodically reflects back what they have heard (the speaker needs to allow for some pauses) and check that they heard correctly until the speaker’s time is up.

4. Before the listener becomes the speaker they summarise what they heard and empathise with what is being expressed emotionally. You don’t have to agree but you try to step into the shoes of the other.

5. If the issue is not resolved at the agreed end time, you make another appointment and finish with a positive statement such as “what I’ve learned” “what I now understand better”.


  • Siegel, Daniel (2010). Mindsight. Transform your brain with the new science of kindness. Oxford: Oneworld Publications
  • Hendrix, Harville (1993). Getting the love you want. A guide for couples. London: Simon and Schuster
  • The Gottmann Institute: http://www.gottmanblog.com/2013/04/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism.html

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London, Greater London, N14 7BH
Written by Angela Dierks, MStud (Oxon), MA Integrative Counselling, MBACP (Acc)
London, Greater London, N14 7BH

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