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Why we start emotionally charged fights, and how to rise above them

How do we move from 'ego' to 'we go'?

So look, we all experience emotionally charged conflicts: whether it’s in the workplace, whether it’s a colleague, whether it’s at home with a spouse, whether it’s even in our country dealing with political issues. 

The challenge is how do we deal with it most effectively? And my sense is that most people come in with like the quick-fix answer, the rational approaches. “Just listen a little bit more. Talk a little bit less.” And that’s useful but that’s not enough. 

Beneath rationality is this other layer to the conflict which is the emotional layer. 

You’re starting to get angry. Your colleague is starting to get angry and things start to fester. But even that is not the fundamental force driving us in conflict. What’s the core? It’s identity. 

At the end of the day what tends to fuel our emotions in a conflict is a threat to who we are and what we stand for. And the moment I threaten what you deeply care about all of a sudden now we have a real emotionally charged conflict. 

So the moment your identity feels threatened all of a sudden you fall prey to a very dangerous mindset that I call the tribes effect. This is an “us versus them” mindset. You could be in a conflict with somebody you love – your mother, your kid – but the moment you get into this mindset it becomes Me versus You, Us versus Them. Think about a conflict in your own life. There are three basic characteristics to this tribal mentality. 

One, it’s adversarial. It is Me versus You. 

Two, it’s self-righteous. I believe I am right and legitimate in my perspective and I believe you are wrong and crazy. 

And element number three: this tribes effect, it is a closed system. So I will argue and defend my perspective to no ends but I am going to close my ears to your perspective. This is the tribes effect. We fall into it in the family dynamic and unfortunately just as true national dynamics, international dynamics, we see the polarizations there.

Once you attach to a tribe something strange happens. No longer is content as important, the substance of the arguments, the policies. That is important, but at the end of the day, the most important element in terms of being a part of the tribe is the loyalty. Loyalty to the tribe. And the most serious, and the most serious offense that you can commit against your own tribe is to betray that tribe’s trust, its loyalty, its essence. It’s to go against the tribe in some way. 

You look at the United States right now. There are these huge political divides. You see the Democrat tribe or tribes. You see the Republican tribes as well. And it’s very difficult for either side to even say, “I understand what you’re saying.” Because some on the inside of each side are going to say, “Oh, they’re betraying our tribe.” 

And the moment betraying the tribe, that’s a taboo. If I break a taboo I can suffer social punishment. I’m going to be ex-communicated. I’m going to be ridiculed or worse. That’s the challenge of our tribalistic world that we’re in right now. 

So you could have somebody in Trumpville or Clintonville who totally is getting hammered by—let’s say in the Trump part—who’s totally going to get hammered by its changes to healthcare. But they’re still in that camp because they’re part of the tribe. Recognizing that identity is critical; it sort of opens our eyes to what might be going on in the world around us and in our communities around us. 

Let’s think about some of the issues that are in the public sphere. Abortion, healthcare, taxes, security of the country; All of these issues hit right to the core of our identity, who we are and what we stand for. And the moment I feel that any of those elements is threatened, now I move toward the tribes effect. Now I want to move toward being with a group of people like myself who are going to protect me and my interests from becoming trampled on. 

And a powerful tool you can do is to emphasize the us, the two of us. Moving from ego to “we-go”, you know, "there we go." And it’s a big difference. 

Watching conflict situations I’ve noticed something interesting. You know at first people are battling it out. My perspective versus yours, and all of the energy is moving toward my ego and my perspective versus your ego and your perspective. 

When you start to see the transition what starts to happen is that each side recognizes there’s also an us. There’s me and there’s you, but there’s also the space between us that we are creating together. 

And the more you can emphasize the “us,” the more you can move toward real reconciliation with the two of you moving toward some cooperative and sustainable outcome. 

I mean looking at the rhetoric in the United States right now there’s so much divisive rhetoric. Where are the voices of “us”, the United States of America? And the more you get those kinds of voices the more you can start to in a sense overpower the us versus them thinking. 

We’re not trying to overpower the ideas that the people have behind their us-versus-them thinking. We’re trying to overpower that adversarial mindset.

 

It's no surprise that we are in a pretty turbulent time in terms of a political divide. With Democrats and Republicans at each other's throats both in congress and in American streets, it appears that both sides have gone tribal. And by tribal — Dan Shapiro notes — we're often overlooking that the other side are human beings just like us. Shaprio suggests we move beyond the tribal mentality and try and understand the collective "us" that America still is under all this hubris. Shapiro goes on to say that because we hold these opinions so deep—be they about abortion or healthcare or what have you—our brains see any threat to these notions as threats to us as a person. When half the country feels one way about an issue with no perceived common ground in the middle, we revert back to these tribal instincts. And it can do a lot of damage to societies if this cultural dissonance is left unchecked.

Such big change won't happen overnight. But the sooner we recognize the perceived "other side" as just like us, then we can move beyond these political squabbles and work together towards a greater good.


Dan Shapiro's latest book is Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.

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  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
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The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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