Steve Johnson, co-faculty lead of ‘Leading with Self-Awareness‘ program, elaborates on how to be more effective in managing interpersonal conflict and stress
Sport Coaching relies on effective communication. But sometimes when we feel we are being verbally or psychologically attacked or threatened our bodies and our faces have a fascinating way of responding to interpersonal conflicts which not only changes how we feel but also impacts our ability to learn and perform.
Stephen Porges‘ Polyvagal Theory offers a lens through which we can understand these responses, highlighting three distinct states:
- the Social Engagement System
- the Fight or Flight response
- the Immobilisation response
These states, each with its own set of physiological and behavioural reactions, helps shed light on how we navigate the complex landscape of human relationships when conflict arises.
Imagine a scenario where two people, say a coach and an athlete, find themselves in disagreement. Initially, when both feel the conflict is minor, they can feel safe and connected in their social context, their bodies are primarily engaged in what is called the Social Engagement System. The Social Engagement system in humans (and other mammals) is unique in that our facial features which are connected to our heart through neural pathways, reflect how we are feeling.
When we are feeling relaxed, calm and safe, this state is characterised by the activation of the ventral vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It fosters a sense of calmness, engagement, and social connection. The coach and the athlete can listen actively, maintain eye contact, and engage in cooperative and empathetic communication. This system is at play when conflicts are minor or manageable, allowing for effective problem-solving and understanding.
“Understanding the Polyvagal Theory equips us to recognise these physiological responses to conflict”
However, conflicts are not always minor and tensions can escalate as they often do in sport. As the disagreement intensifies or is perceived as a threat, the body may shift gears into the Fight or Flight response. This response is marked by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), leading to increased heart rate, heightened respiration, and the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and noradrenaline.
This ability to respond to changing environmental circumstances is known as Neuroception and it is not a conscious thought response, but rather a neural response.
As emotions like anger, fear, or anxiety can take centre stage, the body prepares to either confront the threat (fight) or escape from it (flight). Physiologically, muscles tense up, pupils dilate, our facial expressions change and the body readies itself for action.
In some cases, conflicts can become overwhelming, or the perceived threat can be inescapable. In such situations, the body may resort to the Immobilisation respons characterized is characterised by a significant activation of the dorsal vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It induces a ‘freeze’ or ‘shut down’ response, where individuals may feel emotionally numb, dissociated, or even hopeless. Physiologically, heart rate and blood pressure decrease and muscles become rigid. Immobilisation is a survival strategy when neither fighting nor fleeing is a viable option.
The body’s response to interpersonal conflict is a dynamic interplay between these states, influenced by the perceived level of threat and individual differences in nervous system regulation.
Ideally, the presence of the Social Engagement System allows for effective communication and conflict resolution. However, when conflicts escalate or become overwhelming, the body may shift into Fight or Flight or even the immobilising freeze mode, hindering effective resolution and communication.
“The changes that take place in bodies and our social engagement system in stressful, threatening and even frightening social situations is something that all coaches, teachers, leaders and parents can benefit from understanding”
Understanding the Polyvagal Theory equips us to recognise these physiological responses to conflict. Armed with this knowledge, we can approach interpersonal conflicts and stress with greater empathy and awareness.
By creating safe and supportive environments, we can help individuals shift from defensive responses (Fight, Flight, or Immobilisation) toward a more socially engaged and collaborative state.
The changes that take place in bodies and our social engagement system in stressful, threatening and even frightening social situations is something that all coaches, teachers, leaders and parents can benefit from understanding. In doing so, it becomes easier to promote healthier interactions, create healthier sporting cultures and be more effective at managing interpersonal conflict.
Steve Johnson is CEO of the Wellbeing Science Institute and will be co-faculty lead of ‘Leading with Self-awareness‘, a joint program run by Johann Cruyff Institute and Wellbeing Science Institute from February 2024.
‘Leading with Self-awareness‘ is an innovative leadership program that focuses key areas of modern neuroscience to help leaders develop and integrate a nuanced emotional toolkit into their leadership practice.