Classical Conditioning in Conflict Resolution

David - About Relationships - April 14, 2019

This article revolves around Pavlov's classical conditioning and how it lets you untangle harsh conflicts effectively. In the end, it provides you with a strong strategy to prevent the worst from happening when you face recurrent disagreements on the same topic.

Following the release of my new book on conflict resolution, many readers asked for it, so here it is.

It just works and you will see good results, especially if your conflicts tend to worsen badly in no time.

Table of Contents
Classical Conditioning in Conflict Resolution - Illustration - Picture

An Insight Into Classical Conditioning

You might have heard of it already. It's also known as "Pavlov's dog", "Respondent conditioning" and "Pavlovian".

Ivan Pavlov won the nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904. He's a renowned physiologist and physician who studied the impact of conditioning on animals' behaviors. He also founded the behavior therapy, which is still in use nowadays.

In simple terms, it's about associating a stimulus with an existing behavior to induce a whole new behavior.

A stimulus is an event that evokes a specific reaction. For instance, when dogs are presented food, they start to salivate. The stimulus is food presentation, the reaction is the dog's salivation.

Pavlov's experiment consisted in ringing a bell everytime he fed his dog. By the end of the experiment, the dog would associate bell's ring to salivation, even when there was no food at all. It demonstrated the strong impact of classical conditioning on physiology and behavior.

Classical Conditioning in Conflict Resolution - Illustration - Picture

How it Applies to Conflict Resolution

The analogy is simple.

Recurring conflicts on the same topic are the existing behavior.

You have to define a stimulus to start building a new behavior.

The new behavior you want to adopt should lead to conflict's resolution or avoidance.

To get the best of the classical conditioning toward your conflict management, follow these steps:

Theses steps were designed to be done by two people. It assumes you frequently come into conflict with the same person and you both want to find your way out of the conflict maze.

1. Figure out what frequently hurts and the reason why it happens in every dispute. Sit down with your interlocutor and explain what makes you upset, sad, and unwilling to open yourself. Be sincere, do not mince your words, and do not pretend you are invincible. Everyone gets hurt one way or another and you are no exception, hence you should be frank and sincere before it strikes again. Swallow your pride and expose yourself.

2. Define an emergency stimulus. Find a specific signal you will send when the conversation is on its way to get rough or unbearable. It can be almost anything: a funny word, a song, a particular sentence, and so on. This signal will serve as a white flag and a reminder that both parties want peace and nothing else.

3. Establish a safety procedure. Decide on the best action to take once the signal is sent. You can stop talking, leave, and postpone the conversation to another time. You can act as if nothing happened, have a good moment with your interlocutor, and agree on getting back to it later. You can apologize, say sorry for what happened, take back your harsh words, and ask for a new start from scratch. You can buy a small present for each other to get the conversation back on track. You can go to a restaurant and hope for social pressure to discourage you from getting angry in a public place. You are spoiled for choice.

4. Determine when to use the stimulus. In practice, better prevent than cure. Tell you are afraid things get worse so you cut the conversation short and postpone it. Do not wait too long or you may not be able to ask for a truce.

To stick to the rules you set with your interlocutor is crucial. If you have decided to stop talking after the alarm was triggered, hold your tongue. You have to show respect for your mutual arrangement.

The more you fail at following your own rules, the more you weaken your ability to resolve your conflicts.

Please beware this strategy can be successful only if both parties accept to play the game.

Classical Conditioning - The Strategy as a Picture

Feel free to download and share this infographic in order to help more and more people resolve their conflicts.

Classical Conditioning in Conflict Resolution - Illustration - Infographic - Classical Conditioning in Conflict Resolution
Infographic - Classical Conditioning in Conflict Resolution
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Celma Reader

This is very interesting content. I'm interested in human behaviour, and in general want to be more intentional about how I talk to people and handle relationships. It's important to establish my own triggers, but I see how it ca be difficult to communicate those points of vulnerability with someone else. What do you mean by "interlocutor"? A facilitator, or the person I have conflicts with?

David M. Author

Thank you so much for your comment Celma! Much appreciated. By "interlocutor" I mean the person you have conflicts with. To be honest, what I like most about this technique is how you can apply it to many aspects of your life, even beyond conflicts.

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