You know these moments which, when you remember them, you can really feel what you felt at the time. Those moments when even the smallest memory can trigger quite a deep emotional response that has nothing to do with how we feel today and everything to do with what you felt then.
Even as I write this I am feeling emotions I felt more than 10 years ago. It was in the Council Chamber, a full council meeting and somebody said something that really got to me – a snarky jibe about me personally. Usually when that happened I could let it roll off my back – politics gave me a pretty thick skin – but almost as soon as the jibe was out the Lord Provost called on me to speak, not because of what had been said – just because it was my turn next.
As I stood up could feel my temper rising and my heart racing. My speech went out the window and I spoke, not from the heart but from my anger, ripping into the comments and the person who said them. Bizarrely, because I also somehow managed to tie my comments into the subject matter and claim the high moral ground as a result, my speech was well received by colleagues and opposition members not in the same party as the person who’d had a go at me. But it wasn’t a good speech because any relationship I had with the person who’d spoken before me was severely damaged.
What I really remember is not how I felt when I was on my feet but when I sat down. Colleagues were applauding loudly and I felt terrible. To be honest, I don’t really remember in detail what I said, or even what the jibe was in the first place. I just remember thinking as I sat down – that did not feel good at all. I had let my anger cloud my judgement and spoken with the kind of aggression and derision that I believed undermined political debate and added nothing to our ability as politicians to make good decisions.
It’s not a good memory but it is one I think of now as I prepare for next week’s Annual Cyrenians Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution (SCCR) Conference – or Homunculus event – “Conflict. it’s all about the brain…or is it?”.
The event is a very exciting partnership between SCCR and the Glasgow Science Centre which will explore why what happened in moments like my standing to speak whilst in anger is actually both scientifically explicable and normal. It will even use brain scans to help us understand those moments. Anger is not a problem. It’s in truth a kind of energy in us which, well used, can be very constructive, (i.e. not like my response in the Council Chamber!). The so called “red mist” is a real event in our brains. And knowing that now, thanks to the insights SCCR have taught me, means though I don’t like the memory in one sense, now that I understand it, I don’t beat myself up about it.
Scotland as a nation does conflict to Premier Division standard – in fact, the Premier Division is often the place where such conflict starts – well, if not starts, where it’s triggered – though it is then played out in living rooms across the nation. But it’s not just football. We know 4500 young people leave home because they have fallen out with their families. We know gang violence is once again increasing in Scotland after a drop in recent years. We know attacks on teachers have increased in recent years. And we know cyber bullying is reaching what some would argue is endemic proportions.
So much of this is very far removed from my speech in anger, yet in other ways it is a reflection of the same response by others to events that I had as I rose to my feet to speak as anger welled up in me.
The art of reducing conflict and turning anger into positive opportunity lies in first understanding what’s happening inside our brains in response to the world outside our heads. The more people we can help understand those moments, the more chance there is fewer people will suffer because of conflict in their lives – and we might even help our politicians make better decisions (or at least more helpful speeches – or is that too big a reach…!)