Trust and Tension

By Natalie Irons
Associate Director of Instructional Coaching, UCLA Center X

“Never let a conflict go to waste.” – Garmston and McKanders, Teachers as Facilitators

In a recent study session on collaborative practices, several colleagues and I brainstormed ideas to build trust in group settings, particularly when conflict arises. One person said, “We can remind people it’s ok to be in a place of tension without feeling destroyed or abandoned.” I had to pause and ask for them to repeat what they said. I was struck by their statement and wondered what might be behind this sentiment. The person calmly repeated it as if they experienced a tension like this themselves. I thought of the meetings I had attended in the past where I left feeling a sense of despair and wondered if they too left workspaces feeling the same.

When people come together for a meeting, ideas are generated from values, beliefs and experiences. This all creates potential for heated dialogue. Sometimes it’s the simple use of language that can get in the way of trust among the group. Use of words like “trauma” or “equity,” or when someone says, “don’t get so angry” can activate a person’s memory, experience, and beliefs. It can stir up conflict.

As we talked, it was becoming clear that we each had our own visceral memory of being in the moment of a conversation and hearing something that flooded our own affective, cognitive and somatic response systems (think fight, flight, freeze or feign responses in the brain). Some conflict just might start in ourselves. At times the best response to being activated is to simply notice the internal tension first. Then, as coaches, we can remember the power of the pause – like a check in with yourself to build awareness of your internal states. We generated questions like the following to ask ourselves before making an external response.

  • How healthy and productive is this interaction?
  • How can I remember this without reliving it?
  • Why am I doing this, and why am I doing this this way?

Looking at the differences between jumping to react or responding with thought might help mitigate nervous system responses. When you have been in a meeting and your body or brain was activated, what are some ways you might manage your internal states?