We’ve all been there. In a split second and without even thinking about it, you hit your opponent with a barrage of insults, scathing comments, aggressive accusations or a passive aggressive wall of silence. Your fury takes over and within minutes, you’ve transformed what could have been a difficult but doable discussion into a fight. The outcome might be an unrepairable breach of trust, the end of a relationship or at worst, a criminal record.
Most of the time, we don’t intend these consequences. It’s just an emotional reaction to something we have perceived, a story we have been told or are telling ourselves which may even be tied to past hurts which have nothing to do with the person in question.
All you really wanted to do was let the other person know that you felt hurt. You just want them to see things from your point of view and to acknowledge your feelings. You want them to say, “you matter” and even “I’m sorry”.
You may have already noticed however, that when you explode with rage at the other person, you don’t feel as if the conflict is resolved. Thinking back at the times when my temper got the better of me, I felt ashamed because I know I can communicate better than that. I also feared the retaliation that could have followed. That’s just not how I wish to interact with anyone. More importantly, reacting to conflict in this way diffuses your power to choose how you wish to respond.
Responding to Conflict
When you respond to conflict, you are giving yourself the option to feel your emotions, express them clearly and then decide what you will do to resolve matters. It’s a skill that requires practice and patience and when you realise that you have options in every situation, this is the true exercise of power and influence. Not domination and violence.
This is an on-going work in progress for most people but the following five steps help me to respond rather than react to conflict.
(1) Be prepared for an emotionally difficult conversation. If you already feel angry or frustrated by somebody, the chances are that those feelings may be more intense when you see them or talk to them. If you suspect that this might be the case, prepare what you will say and do if you do get angry or feel like you may be overwhelmed by other emotions. What will you do if you feel you will cry or lose your temper? These reactions are unlikely to enable you to express yourself with clarity and precision so it’s a good idea to think about your potential reactions before seeing the person. In anger management terms, you’re finding out what your triggers are and how to manage them.
(2) Figure out what it feels like when you know you are about to get overwhelmed with emotions. When I feel vulnerable, my throat tightens and I shut down. I can’t speak. I feel a sudden burst of heat that can turn into trembling when I feel furious. Sadness feels like a tight chest and it’s similar to anxiety, although that I feel more in my belly. When I notice these sensations are becoming unmanageable, I either turn half of my attention to what I am experiencing in my body and my breath or I ask to excuse myself for a few moments. Deep breaths really help to calm the nervous system and this works very well for me. This type of awareness is the essence of secular mindfulness.
(3) Get Some Distance. This is a crucial step to take in any kind of conflict or difficult conversation. Many a time, I have asked for a few moments, a time out, a break or “some time to think about things”. I have even said that I felt too angry to speak constructively and that I needed a couple of days to calm down. This type of pause serves two purposes: (1) to help you process what you are feeling so that you don’t take your emotions out on the other person and ruin any bridges you have built and; (2) it gives you time to think clearly about what you will do to resolve the conflict. In short, it puts distance between your emotions and your actions.
(4) What do you want to achieve? If you need the other person’s cooperation in order to fulfil your interests, you won’t get that if you burst into a fit of anger during a conversation with them. Equally, if you are having a conversation with your boss about his micro-managing, sobbing into your hands won’t communicate why you want things to change. If you can get your objectives clear, you’ll be able to see the benefit of including emotional reaction management as a way to prepare for your meeting. Consider writing an email instead of meeting in person. A word of warning though. Read and re-read over and over until you are confident that what you have written is clear and concise and won’t be perceived as rude, aggressive or offensive.
(5) Is it worth it? This question is a key conflict consideration. It works best when you are engaging with somebody who is prone to temper tantrums or passive aggressive tactics. Getting angry with them or retaliating may not be worth the outcome of more destructive conflict. It may make you feel better for a very short time but in reality, you may just be continuing the cycle of unpleasantness with no real gain for you. Do you have to engage at all with this person?
Responding rather than reacting to conflict is a step towards personal evolution. It’s empowering and productive because it allows you to focus on what is important to you in the long-run, not what makes you feel better in that moment.
As always, feel free to leave your comments. Do you have any other tips ?