Being a fairly emotionally expressive individual with lots of opinions, I find I have many opportunities to participate in conflict situations with more regularity than I would like. I’ve had to learn the hard way how to manage conflict and to avoid the harsh consequences of falling out with someone.
Conflict is not actually a bad thing, and if my experience is anything to go by, its pretty impossible to prevent. Conflict between people is the inevitable consequence of people feeling empowered and expressing their individuality, but of course the negative side is that people can be unreasonable, blinkered or bigoted. Conflict is not only inevitable, it can also be an incredibly positive force that pushes you, your project or your organisation froward to reach new heights. Actually we need to embrace conflict, not that we go out looking for it, but recognise that what is perceived as a negative can be turned into a tremendous creative force.
Key to gaining something positive out of conflict is managing our own responses to the the situation you are in. I know when I am getting up tight about a situation I find my emotions start whizzing around inside my head, my heart starts pounding and I can feel emotion (normally anger and indignation) rising up. It’s when this happens that I realise its time to step away from the situation and get some space between me and the potential eruption. Normally in a work context, when someone has pushed my buttons, I retreat from conversation and probably isolate myself in a coffee shop to regain my equilibrium. Nothing positive can come out of being emotionally sick over the person, normally you get hurt, the other person gets hurt and anyone standing around at the time gets splash back.
I’m not talking about ignoring the situation or suppressing the emotion, in the long term all that does is damage yourself, your anger is diverted inwards and that must cause internalised pain which will probably come out another day. No what I’m talking about is allowing the emotion/pain/anger to dissipate, to become diluted and give yourself a chance to think about why the person or issue caused you to react. I find that in the heat of a situation I can’t think straight and my internal emotion dominates. Once that flat white has kicked in and I take a second bite of the pain au raisin I can start to see through the blur of rage and make sense of what is happening. It’s at this point I can assess whether I am over reacting (which in my case is normal), whether the other person has a legitimate point and whether I have a legitimate point. It’s only after this process that I can decide whether there is something to say to the other person or whether I am being a complete plonker in which case its best just to leave the issue.
When I know what my point is, I can think about the best way of framing the issue with the other person, hopefully without all the emotion getting in the way. Emotion is valuable, it tells you that something is important, but it it can get in the way communicating the issue that is important. One thing I try never to do is write an email when I am angry. Emails are the very worst way of communicating your point particularly when emotion is fuelling it (the other is social media posting!!!). They have a habit of being misunderstood, they can also be referred to and used in evidence at a later date!
Conflict communication is best handled face to face. Of course its not easy, but it is the very best way to get something to resolved. If you have done your processing and decide you need to get something sorted, do it from a positive place. You don’t need to point score, you don’t need to inflict harm on the other person, you just need to be able to make sure that your voice is heard. You can’t be responsible for their reaction, you can’t make them agree but you can moderate the language and way in which you communicate so that your voice can be heard in the way you want.
Particularly at work, we should try to create an environment which allows conflict to be a productive force not a negative force. Disagreement doesn’t have to lead to following the companies grievance policy, it can and should lead to deeper thinking and stronger relationships. But we have to learn how to cultivate positive conflict where we don’t get ensnared with emotions and pain but rather can rise above them to see the issue.