I have just finished reading Rory Miller’s new book titled Conflict Communication: A New Paradigm in Conflict Communication.
For those who are not familiar with Rory Miller, he is a martial artist who spent almost two decades working as a prison guard. He shot to a kind of overnight fame in martial arts and self defence circles in 2008 with his book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence, which is still the best self defence book I have read.
In his latest book, Miller looks at all forms of conflict – ranging from violence to office politics to spousal relations – and how to talk your way out of it. And how to recognize when you cannot talk your way out of trouble.
At the heart of the book, Miller breaks down human behavior into what he calls “the lizard brain”, “the monkey brain” and “the human brain” and shows how understanding which brain you are acting from – and which brain others are acting from – is the key to resolving conflict verbally. To be clear, this is just a model for looking at human behavior and not a full-blown theory explaining it, which Miller makes clear. As a model, it has pretty strong explanatory power.
In short, the lizard brain is concerned solely with survival, the monkey brain with your status in the group and the human brain with logic and critical thought. The book shows how you can use your human brain to defuse conflict.
Much of the book is about the monkey brain because this where most social violence (as opposed to predatory violence – read Meditations on Violence) comes from. The lizard brain’s sole concern is survival so we use this part of ourselves extremely rarely these days (after all, when was the last time you came face to face with a sabre-toothed cat?)
The monkey brain, however, permeates all of our actions because humans are a social animal so we are obsessed with having a place in the group. Even having a low status in the group is preferable to not belonging to the group at all because the monkey brain does not distinguish between exclusion and death. This is because for most of human history, not being part of the group would soon result in death.
The following statements, which could all lead to a fight, are monkey brain statements:
“What are you looking at?
“Are you looking at my girlfriend?”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
These statements are all aimed at establishing status. They come from the monkey brain.
Miller shows how to identify conflict coming from the monkey brain and ways to defuse it. One of the most interesting parts of the book is how understanding the rules of any group are important to understanding and diffusing social conflict.
While people who practice non-sporting martial arts (hey, that’s us) are often fond of talking about how unlike in the ring, there are no rules on the street, Miller shows how this is not really true when it comes to social violence. The group may not have rules, but it does have social norms; and if your response to conflict violates these social norms, you will (at worst) incur the wrath of the group or (at best) be excluded from the group. Miller argues, persuasively, that any solution to monkey brain conflict needs to acknowledge this reality.
Beyond recognizing monkey brain violence, the book looks at how to stop your own monkey brain taking over. When faced with monkey brain conflict, we must be sure that we do not respond from our own monkey brains. This is not easy to do. We, like everyone else, have the same desire for status and group belonging. We need to act from our human brain. We need to be a grown up. This part of the book may have you reflecting on your own actions and behavior. If so, then the book is doing its job. Making this part of your own behavior is real personal growth territory.
The book also looks at how this relates to predatory violence, it provides non-violent examples such as conflict conversations at work between people and their bosses and between spouses and even between parents and children.
The book is a good standalone book but you will get more out of it if you have read Miller’s other two books Meditations on Violence and Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected. These books explore in detail some of the concepts that are just summarized in his new book (such as the difference between social and predatory violence).
All up the book is another welcome addition to Miller’s books which are steadily teaching us how to avoid violence by understanding the context in which it happens.