We’ve all been there. Looking back at a conflict that we know could have gone better if we had just said something different. If we had just made a different choice. But in the moment, the emotions took over and the right words didn’t come out. Instead, the worst words flew out of our mouths like a cannon. 

Or maybe it was that paralysis that set in when the conversation turned uncomfortable. We felt threatened and abandoned the notion of getting our point across. So now we’re stuck stewing about the misalignment. 

In both of these scenarios, the biggest problem is not the conflict itself. Conflict is a natural process of working with people. Each of us brings different ideas, perspectives, and experiences to the workplace. Those differences are going to bring about conflicting interpretations at some point in time. 

The biggest problem is the inability to steer a conflict toward progress. Conflict truly is the setting for the best forward progress to take place, but if we’re not careful, the opportunity can slip through our fingers while splintering our working relationships and contaminating the workplace environment for everyone. 

This often happens because in the moment conflict occurs emotions in one or both parties are running high, so it’s easy to let your protective instincts take over and speak for you (or order your retreat). Your focus shifts from solving the problem at hand to protecting yourself. It can be really difficult to communicate objective thoughts and opinions in that protective state. Your fight or flight survival instincts will almost always steer you down the wrong path. 

With practice, you can thwart your inner cave person’s attempt to take over with primitive instincts, so you can more effectively handle conflict situations and even take advantage of the opportunities they can create.  

Allow Space 

If you’re normally a quick responder, you might find it challenging to hold back your thoughts, especially when your emotions are engaged. But this is precisely the time when slowing down matters. Because you can bet the first response that comes to your mind is not coming from the rational you, but from who? You guessed it, your protective inner cave person. When you’re sensing fear, attack, or any level of dissent, the inner cave person jumps in to act on your behalf. 

Just a few seconds of delayed response can make a difference. But you might need more time, and that’s perfectly fine! Accept and practice the notion that it’s ok to take time to respond. Use the space to analyze whether your thoughts are automatic, which tend to be focused on self-preservation, or if they are objective. A rule of thumb, the more upset you are, the more space you should take. The idea is, you need to bring yourself back to “good” in order to clearly interpret the conflict and choose your responses. 

Prepare Canned Responses

Since you can’t always predict when a conflict situation is going to have a strong effect on you, it helps to have some productive, go-to responses prepared that you can deliver when your emotions are attempting to hijack your nervous system and illicit your automatic response. If your mind doesn’t have to work super hard to find more effective responses, it can find them through the fog of emotion even before it has cleared. Here are some examples of canned responses that work to transform conflict from destructive to productive:

Neutral statements that give time for processing-

“I’m hearing what you’re saying.”
“I’m taking in the opinions you’re sharing.”
“I see that’s your observation of the circumstances.”

Paraphrasing falls into this category, as you’re simply restating what the other person said in your own words. Not only does paraphrasing buy you time to calm down, but it also allows the other person to make corrections to any misinterpretations and might bring you to the same page. 

Statements that ask for more information- 

“Help me understand the details about how this happened?”
“How do you think we can avoid this happening in the future?”
“How did you reach that conclusion?”

Use open-ended questions for the best results. You’ll get helpful details to actually solve the problem and show the other person that you’re more focused on solving the problem, not on in intentionally causing harm. 

Statements that remove hostility-

“I understand what you’re saying and, although I might need a minute to process, I do value your input.”
“I’m committed to the same goal.”
“I can tell that this really matters to you.”

Showing a person that they are being heard works wondrously to neutralize hostility. You need not make it more complicated than that. 

Study in Good Times

Spend time studying your automatic tendencies before conflict happens. You want to examine your behavior patterns with a clear, unemotional head so you can truly identify them and make sense of their origin. Once you’ve reached that point, give yourself permission to acknowledge the underlying hurts and concerns that these behaviors were designed to prevent. When you acknowledge these feelings, they tend to lose their power over your responses. We are all complex beings with needs that deserve to be validated. If validation didn’t happen when it should have, then we may carry these protective feelings around with us into unrelated situations thinking that every place is unsafe. 

The reality is, more companies are building innovative cultures that require authenticity from employees, and you’ve got to get better at understanding yourself to thrive. You’ve must communicate from a secure place where you’re in full control to deliver your most effective messages.

Remember the End Goal

Do what you can to stay grounded in your mission and the passion that draws you to do the work that you do. Find time to read or connect with other passionate people working hard to achieve the organization’s goals or similar personal goals. Participate in available team building activities that allow you to gain a deeper understanding of your colleagues and direct reports so you can understand what matters to them. You may find that although your approach differs, your objectives are similar.  When conflict happens, what connects you will be top of mind and might help to guide you toward making positive actions in step with those shared goals. 

So try these simple, yet highly effective tips to transform your next potentially destructive conflict situation into a step toward progress. Anything you can do to avoid unrefined responses making their way to your team is going to prove to be more effective. Just remember, although there may still be a place for acting on your survival instincts, the inner cave person gets it wrong a lot of the time. You’re better off channeling a different interpretation of the facts before forming your response.

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