Mindfulness for Resolving Conflict
Podcast #106 — Aired October 3, 2016

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for improving our lives and it can help strengthen our relationships, as well. This week on BetterWorldians Radio we’re talking with psychotherapist Linda Graham about the steps couples can take to cool down from conflict and move on in a healthy direction.

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Linda Graham
Psychotherapist,

Linda Graham is an experienced psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area and a teacher of Mindful Self-Compassion. She integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices, and relational psychology in her international trainings. She is the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life award and the 2014 Better Books for a Better World award.

Episode Transcript

Gregory Hansell
Hi, and welcome to BetterWorldians Radio. BetterWorldians Radio is a weekly broadcast whose mission is to uplift and inspire you to make the world a better place. Im Greg Hansel, joined today by my co-host, MarySue Hansel. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by BetterWorldians Foundation and is co-hosted by the family team that created the popular social game on Facebook called, A Better World. It rewards players for doing good deeds while helping to raise money and awareness for charities. To date, over 40 million good deeds have been done in a better world by more than 4 million people in over 100 countries. Good deeds including expressions of gratitude, acts of kindness, and sending get-well notes to real world sick kids, just to name a few. This week on BetterWorldians Radio, we welcome marriage and family therapist, Linda Graham, to discuss how mindfulness can help couples through conflicts. Linda is an experienced psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area and a teacher of mindful self-compassion. She integrates modern neuroscience, mindfulness practices and relational psychology in her international trainings. She is the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, winner of the 2013 Books for a Better Life Award and the 2014 Better Books for a Better World Award.

MarySue Hansell
Hi, Linda. This is MarySue. Thanks for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Linda
Thank you, Mary Sue. I am truly happy to be here.

MarySue Hansell
Great, I love this topic of mindfulness. So, its a topic that we talked about a lot on BetterWorldians Radio but for those listeners who dont know, could you explain briefly what mindfulness is?

Linda
So, mindfulness is paying attention to experience as its happening in the moment with openness and acceptance rather than resistance or judgment, knowing what youre experiencing while youre experiencing it. And when Im working with clients or participants in a workshop I actually teach seven steps of mindfulness. So the first is to pause and become present. We really have to come out of distraction, out of disassociation, out of denial. We need to show up and engage with the experience of the moment. Then we need to notice and name our experience, not to get caught in a lot of story. But when we give a label to our experience, weve activated the language centers in our brain and our higher brain is online so we actually can pay attention. Then we step back and we disentangle from the experience and we reflect on it. So were cultivating whats also called a witness awareness. Were not embroiled in the experience. Were observing it and witnessing it. And then we can, if we choose, we can monitor that experience and we can modify it. We can begin to make choices about how to respond to this experience which is one of the powerful benefits of mindfulness. And we can practice shifting our perspectives, even knowing that were having a perspective and we can practice shifting our states of mind. So that allows us to truly discern options in the moment and even the potential consequences of our options. Then indeed we can choose wisely. We can let go of the unwholesome. We can cultivate the wholesome and thats really the outcome of a steady mindfulness practice. We practice mindfulness to steady our awareness, to shift out of reactivity into a more open receptive state of mind.

MarySue Hansell
Hm, a- and youre calling this as a form of meditation, is that correct?

Linda
Mindfulness is one form of meditation. There are many others. Mindfulness specifically focuses and steadies our awareness on the experience in the moment. So were able to meet and engage with whatever is happening, exactly as it is happening.

MarySue Hansell
Now how can this a mindfulness of staying in the moment help couples handle their conflict situations?

Linda
So each person in the relationship needs to pay attention to their own reactivity and they regulate those reactions to create the space in their own mind, to pay attention to their partners reactions, as well. So mindfulness helps create space for empathy, for perceiving, for understanding, for making sense of the other persons experience.

MarySue Hansell
Hm.

Linda
So that makes it easier for each partner to take responsibility for their own part in the conflict. So this regulation of their own responses and fully accepting the other persons responses helps people take things not so personally. People can regulate their re- reactivity more quickly and empathize with their partner more deeply so they can stay engaged when the conflict is constructive and they can disengage more quickly when the conflict is destructive.

MarySue Hansell
Sounds like it calms down the whole conflict um [crosstalk].

Linda
Well, it calms down the nervous system.

MarySue Hansell
Ah.

Linda
So that you can participate in the conflict more receptively and resiliently.

MarySue Hansell
Wonderful. You know there is a really interesting study that you mentioned in your article about that, at the University of Wyoming and uh Oregon. Can you tell us about that?

Linda
Mm-hm. Okay, so in this study which was published recently in the journal, Hormones and Behavior, the researchers were studying the impact of mindfulness on the stress hormone cortisol. So they had couples engaged in conflict for 15 minutes. The stress levels go up, the cortisol levels go up. Its much harder to pay attention to your own experience, or to empathize with your partners experience when the cortisol levels have gone up. So they were interested in whether mindfulness could impact the effect of the cortisol and help couples calm down. And they found that couples practicing mindfulness while in the conflict, so theyre paying attention to their experience, theyre paying attention to their reactions to their experience. When they were practicing mindfulness in the conflict they could recover their equilibrium and reduce their cortisol levels and return to a baseline equilibrium much more quickly. Now, of course it helps if people practice mindfulness regularly before they get into a conflict.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, uh-huh.

Linda
Its much easier for the brain to steady attention when its in conflict if the person has already trained the brain to steady their attention.

MarySue Hansell
You know, thats really interesting and they, they measured it by their saliva, taking uh some of that and measuring the cortisol levels in there. Is that something easy to do?

Linda
Its fairly easy for a researcher who is practiced in doing that to do as a fairly simple lab test, yes.

MarySue Hansell
I thought Id, Id like to do that to myself, so in some of these situations. Anyway, you have three wonderful steps to help couples cool down during conflicts and lets just talk about some of those. The first one, uh, you called attentional mindfulness. Tell us about that please.

Linda
Okay, so the researchers call this attentional mindfulness. And it simply means paying attention to your own experience. Youre noticing what youre feeling or thinking. Youre noticing that you are feeling and thinking. Youre noticing how youre reacting. Is this wise and skillful? Is it habitual? Is it harmful? So when Im cultivating this form of mindfulness with my own clients or participants, attentional mindfulness, I will ask a person over and over. What are you noticing now? What are you noticing now?

MarySue Hansell
Mm-hm.

Linda
Staying focused on themselves and their reactions. So theyre not jumping over the net to shame or blame their partners for their partners behavior. Theyre staying focused on their own experience and their reactions to their experience.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah, you mentioned that uh its probably a lot easier if youre used to doing that mindfulness like uh being aware of your, you know whats going on in your body uh before you go uh before you have a conflict then its probably easier I know myself I am uh a mindfulness meditator. And I dont know if Id be able to do that as easily if I hadnt uh practiced mindfulness. Cuz now I do notice uh at all times and so do you find that in your practice?

Linda
Mm-hm. Well I find its very, very challenging for clients to be self-aware and self-reflective if theyre feeling frightened or angry or confused or overwhelmed or guilty or ashamed.

MarySue Hansell
Mm-hm. Ah, Mm-hm.

Linda
So I try to help my couples normalize how normal it is to feel those feelings and to not have any shame or guilt about feeling those feelings then its a lot easier for them to pay attention to what theyre experiencing if theyre not feeling bad about what theyre experiencing.

Gregory Hansell
Well talk more with Linda about the three-step process to help couples cool down in just a minute. But right now Id like to take a brief break and tell our listeners a bit more about our game on Facebook called, A Better World. A Better World encourages habits of goodness, positive mindsets, and giving to social causes to make a positive difference in the world. Players do things like express gratitude, share acts of kindness, send get-well notes to real world sick children, and more. You can find out more at abetterworld.com. So now, lets get back to our conversation with marriage and family therapist, Linda Graham. So hi, Linda, this is Greg.

Linda
Hi, Greg.

Gregory Hansell
You were just chatting with MarySue about the steps to help couples cool down during conflict.

Linda
Mm-hm.

Gregory Hansell
The first step you talked about was attentional mindfulness. The second uh that the researchers mentioned that you highlighted was attitudinal mindfulness. So what is that and how does it work?

Linda
Okay so attitudinal mindfulness is being open-minded and curious about the experience youre having in a very open-hearted, accepting kind of way. So mindful self-compassion can be very helpful here, too, not only to be mindful but to have compassion for myself as the experiencer of the experience that Im having and being accepting of my own reactions as Im having them. So it tends to soften and kind of warm up the mindfulness.

Gregory Hansell
Hm. So how does someone negotiate the difference between kind of being in the uh, the uh, the flow of their emotions and letting it carried away but being you know having a mindfulness of their attitude and being able to accept it?

Linda
So, as we practice attitudinal mindfulness, or my name for it would be mindful self-compassion, it actually creates a distance between the emotional turmoil. Were not hi-jacked. Were not flooded. Were not carried away. Were witnessing, observing, noticing the experience and actually having compassion, kindness, tenderness toward ourselves in that moment for having the experience keeps us from going into anymore reactivity about it. It actually shifts the functioning of the brain in that very moment. It helps us come out of those survival responses into a more open, receptive, bigger picture kind of awareness of whats happening. So when clients or people practices attitudinal mindness, mindfulness being open-minded, curious, accepting, allowing, softening, its a lot easier for them to notice without being carried away or flooded.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, its really interesting. I think many of us, if not most of us, have had that experience you know when were unfortunately indulging in anger, where theres a police in the back of our head that says I should calm down right now. Im getting carried away. And then sometimes we just let that anger go. And mindfulness in some ways is kinda harness that voice that try to calm you down and just be able to create that distance, I suppose.

Linda
Well, the mindfulness helps us take whatever is happening not so personally.

Gregory Hansell
Mm-hm. Right.

Linda
Yes, Im angry. A lot of people would be angry in a situation, Ive certainly been angry before but I can choose. You see the mindfulness gives us that choice point. I can choose how Im going to respond to my own response. I can choose how Im going to relate to my own anger. And if Im in that aware, choice-ful place of how Im responding to my own anger, I can be a lot more aware and choiceful about how I might be responding to my partners anger.

Gregory Hansell
Mm-hm. You know one thing that opened my eyes on this, uh you mentioned this in the article you wrote for the Greater Good uh Science Center that, you know relationships are something that we depend on for security and safety. And when we were suddenly in a conflict you know we feel at risk, you know that comfort feels at risk. You know we lose that ground beneath our feet and all of a sudden these evolutionary patterns kick in. Can you talk a bit about that?

Linda
Mm-hm. Oh sure. So when we can feel safe with the person that were with and hopefully in our intimate relationships, thats most of the time. So we then experience um even at an unconscious level we dont even have to be mindful or aware of it, but we experience the perception of safety that in the field thats called the social engagement system by making eye contact, hearing the tone of voice and the prosody of voice from our partner, seeing the facial expressions that of receptivity, kindness, openness, our nervous system stays calmed down. We actually feel that sense of safety. Now if something happens and were triggered either into a sense of unsafety or sense of danger, we rev up into our survival responses, fight, flight, freeze. I mean were ready to take action. But that can take over the functioning of our higher brain. And so we can use the mindfulness, the mindful self-compassion to help regulate that reactivity. Even more dramatically couples can feel a sense of life-threat. Uh-oh, if I lose this relationship Im gonna die.

Gregory Hansell
Mm-hm. Sure.

Linda
And so then we shut down. We withdraw, we collapse, we numb out, we could disassociate and then were not present to engage in the relationship. So whats really important there is to come back into that sense of connection and safety whether thats our own mindful self-compassion, the um atti- the attentional mindfulness that were paying to ourselves, the attitudinal mindfulness that were paying to ourselves, or both those forms of mindfulness actually help us open back up to the partner where we might be able to take in a sense of safety from the partner. They value me. They love me. This relationship is important. Theyre not really gonna go anywhere. We have a conflict but well get through that.

Gregory Hansell
Right.

Linda
When you can come back into the safety of the overall relationship then you can calm down and reengage in the conversation.

Gregory Hansell
Hm, I know the third step that you talked about is that re engagement. You know after youve shown the attentional and attitudinal mindfulness, you wanna re engage your partner and focus someone on their experience as well, right?

Linda
Right. So when a person can be aware and accepting and even understanding, make sense of their own experience, and when they can take responsibility for that, theyre not blaming their partner. This is me, this is how Im reacting. I get it. This is me. But not take everything so personally. You know, Im a human being. This is what human beings do. This is what the human nervous system does. Then it can become safe enough to turn attention toward the other persons experience and begin to pay attention to the other persons experience, to be open-minded, curious, receptive, ask questions, listen, take it in. So you can re engage with empathy rather than a defensive attack or withdrawal and the empathy is, the mutual empathy is what allows couples to resolve their conflicts.

Gregory Hansell
Sure. It was interesting to see also in the article how you know you see the power of this process of using my influence to help couples cool down in conflicts. But you also know that some cases where mindfulness cant work or maybe doesnt work as well. Can you share some of those?

Linda
Right. So mindfulness may not be enough to create the safety in the relationship for the couple. So safely we engage if one or both of those partners are engaged in destructive behavior if there are verbal attack, verbal abuse, if theres any threat or violence. So those behaviors have to be addressed first. The person has to calm down and come back into mindful awareness again or the other person takes the time out and they withdraw for safety until its safe enough to re engage and resume the conversation even when that has have some conflict in it. So of course we hope couples are mindful enough to pay attention to when their conversation goes in that more destructive direction and theyre able to take wise action to pull out of that.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, Id have to imagine that even people that have a tendency to be verbally abusive if they begin to practice mindfulness maybe even that helps to, to pull that back or to eliminate that.

Linda
Well, it helps them take responsibility for it and then, then they can make a choice about it, yeah.

Gregory Hansell
Hm. Well, I have just one more question for you today. Um its a question I asked in one form or another every week to our guests. In this case, how do you hope mindfulness can help build stronger relationships and in turn make the world a better place?

Linda
Okay, so mindfulness is a practice to help each person take responsibility to be present in the relationship and to be aware in the relationship and to use some mindfulness to be less reactive or perceive and manage that reactivity more quickly, and to take ownership of their own thoughts and feelings and reactions rather than blaming the other person for them. And then taking the time to pause, to reflect on whats happening and of course reflect on your own reactions to whats happening. And they come to enough calmness within ones self to be open and interested and curious about the other persons experience. And one partner can even help the other partner attune to that experience. You can reflect on what your partner is saying and help them understand their own experience better. Then a couple can reengage from this more receptive, accepting place and from there hopefully resolve their conflict. Now when we can learn how to resolve conflicts within our most intimate relationship where were the most vulnerable. If we can learn to resolve conflicts within our own home and our own families, then we can begin to have the awareness and the empathy and the compassion that will help us resolve the conflicts in the larger world.

Gregory Hansell
You can learn more about Lindas work by going to lindagraham-mft.net. Linda, thank you so much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio and helping us all be more mindful.

Linda
Thank you for having me Greg. I really enjoyed it.

Gregory Hansell
Its our pleasure. BetterWorldians Radio is brought to you by BetterWorldians Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We believe it is essential to plant flowers, not just pull weeds. We focus on positive thinking, positive values and positive actions. In short, our vision is to bring out the BetterWorldian in everybody so that we can all make it a better world but we cant do this without your help. Donations support our BetterWorldians Radio podcast as well as go to our developing new features, like articles, videos, blogs and more. We need to help a BetterWorldians like you to ensure our missions success in the future. Go to betterworldians.com to be a part of this important mission and until next time, please be a better world. [background music]