Types of inner conflict – How to identify them in MindSonar

Pavlov: Experimental Neurosis

In MindSonar we work with the distinction ‘towards’ versus ‘away from’ thinking. This distinction has a long history, be it under a different name. In the beginning of the 20th century, experimental psychology already used this distinction when they were researching what they called ‘experimental neurosis’. The famous I.P. Pavlov was one of the scientists involved in this research.

Pavlov created ‘approach/avoidance conflicts’ in dogs. In terms of meta programs we would say: Pavlov trained his dogs to want to go towards and go away from at the same time. First, he conditioned them with one stimulus (for example a bell) to go towards a food bowl where they were rewarded with food. Next, he conditioned them with another stimulus (for example a horn) to move away from the food bowl because if they stayed there they were given an electric shock. Then, both stimuli (sounds) where presented at the same time: the dog was put in an approach/avoidance conflict. He wanted to go towards the food bowl to get the food and at the same time he wanted to move away from it to avoid the shock. When subjected to this conditioning, the dogs started to show strange behaviors; they stayed completely still or they started doing illogical things like running in circles.

This is what was called ‘experimental neurosis’. Human beings sometimes find themselves in quite similar situations. We call them dilemma’s: on one hand I want to give my boss a piece of my mind (towards, approach), on the other hand I don’t want to get fired (away from, avoidance).

Types of conflict

Psychology makes a distinction between three types of conflict:

Approach/approach conflicts (I want two things, but I can’t have them both). We would say: towards/towards conflicts. When we look at the emotions that thinking ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ are associated with, we expect that this kind of conflict will evoke mostly sadness and anger.

Avoidance/avoidance conflicts (I don’t want either one of two things, but I can’t avoid both of them). We expect that this kind of conflict will evoke mostly fear and anxiety.

Approach/avoidance conflicts (I want one thing and I want to avoid something else, but I can’t have the one thing and avoid the other). In this situation we expect a mix of the above-mentioned emotions.

Conflicts in MindSonar work

In MindSonar we are gathering information on someone’s criteria and their counterparts. These are towards- or approach-issues and away from-  or avoidance-issues. The positive criteria the respondent gives us are things they want to move towards. The counterparts are the things they want to move away from. Similar to when Pavlov’s dogs wanted to move toward foor and away from electric shock. If Pavlovs dogs had filled out MindSonar for the context of ‘Being in Pavlov’s experiments’  they could have filled out ‘Tasty food’  as one criterion and ‘Being safe from electric shock’ as another criterion. With a counterparts: ‘Being hungry’  and ‘Getting shocked’.

Here are some things you could do, as a MindSonar Professional, with the criteria-information in terms of these three types of conflict.

  • First have look at the ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ scores.
  • If the ‘towards’ score is high (say 8+), then look for approach/approach conflicts. Have a look at their hierarchy of criteria and discuss with the respondent if they can achieve all of those criteria simultaneously. Are some of them exclusive, meaning they cannot both be achieved at the same time?  Then there is a potential approach/approach conflict. You may find emotions of anger and sadness. Unless the hierarchy of criteria is very clear. In that case (clear hierarchy) it may not be a problem. Sure, they cannot fulfil both criteria at the same time, but is doesn’t bother them, because criterion 1 is clearly more important than criterion 2. So they are happy achieving a lot of criterion 1, even if that means they won’t achieve much criterion 2.
  • If the ‘away from’ score is high (say 8+), then look for avoidance/avoidance conflicts. Have a look at the counterparts in their hierarchy of criteria. Discuss with the respondent if they can avoid all of those counterparts simultaneously. If not, there may be an avoidance/avoidance conflict. You may find emotions of fear and anxiety. Here also, the problem may be ameliorated or prevented by a clear hierarchy of criteria.
  • If the ‘towards’ and ‘away from’ scores are balanced, look for approach/avoidance conflicts along the same lines as the other conflicts.

And what could be a solution?

And if you find any of these conflicts, what’s next? In terms of coaching, helping the client clarify their hierarchy of criteria might be helpful. Or – as a next step – you might help them negotiate between parts, if you know how to do that. How can the two parts of the person, one of which wants to achieve A and the other wanting to achieve a mutually exclusive B, cooperate, in order to achieve new goals that are satisfactory to both of them?

About the Author

Jaap Hollander

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Working as a trainer, coach and therapist as well as being director of the IEP, the Institute for Eclectic Psychology. Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching. Most recent book: "Provocative Coaching" (English), fall 2012 (Crown House) available from Amazon.

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