Are Your Relationships Spinning Out of Control?
Stop conflict before it stops you.
Posted Oct 19, 2020
By: Daniel Shapiro & Lucas Woodley
Are your relationships feeling strained these days? If so, you are not alone. In this unprecedented era, nearly all of us are feeling some degree of emotional imbalance. Restricted from carefree socializing with friends, family, colleagues, and strangers, it’s like we’re all in a global pressure cooker, and the temperature just keeps rising.
This stir-crazy feeling has spread to politics. If you’ve broached a conversation with someone who holds opposing views on racial issues, health economics, or the political election, you’ve likely felt the effects of polarization. Things quickly can spiral out of control—leaving each of you frustrated, more entrenched in your views, and more divided.
If you think these problems are getting worse, you might be right. Some scholars argue that the current levels of polarization threaten to unravel the social and political fabric of our democratic system (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018). It’s not hard to see why: If having a political conversation across partisan lines enflames conflict, how can we expect diverse communities to work together toward the common good?
Watch Out for Vertigo
One of the most potent obstacles to good relations is vertigo (Shapiro, 2017). Unlike the medical syndrome of the same name, this type of vertigo refers to the everyday emotional experience of getting fully consumed in conflict, unable to think of anything beyond that situation. It’s like you’re at the center of a tornado, stuck in the conflict, and cannot see the world beyond the swirling walls around you. Conflict vertigo is a useful concept to remember the next time you find yourself edging toward a fight with a loved one or colleague, but what does it actually look like in practice?
Imagine you’re arguing with your spouse: You want to go out for dinner, but your spouse wants to stay in. What begins as a lighthearted debate turns into an emotionally charged dispute. One of you brings up old mistakes; the other feels hurt and wants to get even. As you both get more and more upset, this innocuous disagreement spirals into an airing of longstanding grievances. Eventually, you realize an hour has passed, your favorite local restaurants have closed, and you both are too tired to cook. Here, you were victims of conflict vertigo.
Nowadays, politics has become our conflict vertigo-inducing drug of choice. Whether discussing gun control, healthcare, or anything in between, we see political polarization pulling apart communities and sometimes even families.
The problem is that conflict vertigo consumes our emotional energies and narrows our view of the situation (Shapiro, 2017). We end up with less of an emotional reservoir to self-reflect and consequently believe we are acting rationally while everyone else is needlessly argumentative. With our emotional energy depleted, we often fail to attend to feelings of guilt and shame, emotions that alert us to violation of moral or social norms. Absent these emotional watchdogs, we are more likely to say or do things we later regret.
Although such a singular focus on the goal before us can have its own benefits—successful large-scale calls to action are often fueled by this very same fixation—conflict vertigo pushes us beyond the realm of rationality. Instead, we become frenzied by conflict, obsessed over winning the argument and defeating the caricatured individual before us. Once we’ve reached this point, our actions are often misaligned with our goals. We argue for the sake of winning rather than to change the other person’s mind, and we create further strife without gaining any ground.
Four Tips to Move Forward
If you know what to look for, you can stop this before it stops you. Here are a few strategies:
1. Become aware. One of conflict vertigo’s early signs is obsessively thinking about a conflict situation and the person who offended you. No matter how hard you try to distract yourself, your mind returns to this conflict, with this person who you feel has harmed you. If you find your mind stuck in the conflict, stop, take a few deep breaths, and consciously acknowledge vertigo’s presence. Once you name it, you can purposefully decide whether or not to succumb to it.
2. Go to the balcony. Another simple, powerful method to combat this is to go to the balcony (Ury, 1993). Now, this doesn’t mean getting up, walking out the door, and finding the nearest balcony to brood upon. Instead, imagine yourself sitting on a balcony looking down on your current situation. From that new perspective, thoughtfully consider what you hope to get out of the conversation. Will getting into a heated argument with your spouse really help change his or her mind? More than likely, it will only turn productive dialogue into a shouting match.
This is the power of going to the balcony: It can help you remember your purpose and make conscious decisions rather than fall victim to the moment.
3. Take an overview stance. A third strategy to combat conflict vertigo is to adopt an overview stance, an idea that stems from space philosopher Frank White’s “overview effect” (1998). This is the perspective shift that astronauts experience when seeing the Earth from outer space. From this vantage point, they gain a new understanding of community and wholeness—one that inspires them to take action to preserve our planet as a whole.
In the throes of this conflict, an overview stance works in much the same way. If we imagine ourselves viewing the conflict from outer space, we can gain distance from the adversarial dynamics of conflict and open up emotional space to reconnect, listen better, and work through our differences more constructively.
4. Try the jolt! Unfortunately, those in the throes of conflict are often difficult to reason with. As a last-ditch effort, you can always try the jolt! Jolting is when you do something suddenly and unexpectedly to snap everyone out of vertigo (Shapiro, 2017). This can be accomplished with a sudden, heartfelt apology or with something as simple as reminding yourself of your interest in maintaining good relations with the other person.
We all are susceptible to conflict and its debilitating effects, but we also have the power to combat it. To do so, we need to recognize it at the earliest moment possible, name it, and get some distance from its magnetic appeal.
How do you deal with conflict vertigo in your own life? We welcome your insights on how to combat it.
For more information on how to combat conflict vertigo, see Chapter 5 of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable (2017).
Levitsky, S. & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How a Democracy Dies. New Republic.
Shapiro, D. (2017). Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. New York: Penguin.
Ury, W. (1993). Getting Past No. New York: Bantam.
White, F. (2014). The Overview Effect. Reston, Virginia: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautic.