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How to express your emotions during conflict

Conflicts give rise to many emotions—most of them negative, which causes some confusion. Should you share your feelings in the workplace? Isn’t work supposed to be all business? And if you’re going to share your emotions, what’s the best way to do it—the way that will lead from conflict to collaboration?

In this post, we’ll look at how to express the emotions that arise from a workplace conflict. First, we’ll talk about some “inner” work you need to do. Then we’ll talk about the correct way to label your emotion(s). Finally, we’ll provide some tips on actually speaking to the other person.

Ready? Let’s go.

Step one—calm your brain

First off, if you’re experiencing a conflict with someone, it’s likely you’ve entered into brain hijack.

It sounds bad because it is.

Brain hijack is when your amygdala, a cluster of cells located near the base of your brain, perceives that you are in danger and signals your brain to pump out stress hormones, preparing your body to fight or flee.

This fight-or-flight response disables rational, reasoned responses. Higher thinking functions—for example, analysis or the ability to read body language—go out the window.

In other words, the amygdala “hijacks” control of your brain and your responses. You’re in attack mode. Retaliatory responses kick in, and you are no longer interested in solving the problem as much as punishing the other person.

You want to get your frontal lobes back running the show. These two large areas are located at the front of your brain. The frontal lobes regulate voluntary actions such as rationality, decision making, and planning.

So, step one in expressing your emotions engendered by conflict is to get out of brain hijack. Get centered and calm. Get away from the scene of conflict. Get somewhere quiet and secluded, somewhere where you won’t be interrupted. Once there, you can use a number of techniques to calm down your brain. See: How to calm your brain in the middle of conflict.

Step 2—label your emotion(s)

Once you’ve calmed and centered yourself, look inside and try to label your emotion(s). More often than not, you’re going to go straight to anger. It often seems correct, but you should be wary of settling for it as a label.

Why? The fact that you’ve labeled your emotion as anger is a hint that you still may be holding onto resentment—and that you haven’t considered the issue from the other person’s perspective. Anger quickly morphs into righteous indignation—and you find you’re in the mood to blame the other party. You’ve been wronged!

That’s a problem. The key to conflict management is considering things from the other person’s point of view. To do that, you must look at the situation with fresh eyes—use what Zen masters call a “beginner’s brain.” Approaching something as if for the first time. The key is curiosity, and, as psychologist John Gottman says, “When you’re furious, you can’t be curious.”

You need to consider what may be motivating the other person in the conflict. In our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, we teach a skill known as Perspective Taking. This is where you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Your goal is to “reframe” the situation by describing the conflict from the other person’s perspective.

You want to move from impulsively reacting to the other person’s words/actions to thoughtfully responding, considering perspectives other than your own. You may find you’re partly—or fully!—to blame.

Also, you need to see that it’s not what the person said/did that resulted in what you’re labeling as anger. It’s your interpretation of what they said or did—the motives you’re placing on them. For example, maybe you think they are being selfish or grandstanding or trying to make you look bad. Those are just speculations on your part. Attempts at mind-reading.

The truth is probably far more nuanced. Like you, the other person is just trying to do a good job at work.

That is, your anger may be unfounded.

Even if you determine you are angry, you might want to consider softening it before you express it to the other person. Telling someone you’re “angry” at something they said/did can put them on the defensive—can put them in brain hijack!

Try one of these alternatives: frustrated, confused, concerned, alarmed, wary, discouraged. By using one of these words, you can still make your point, but you won’t be as likely to get the other person’s back up.

Step 3—choose your words carefully

Once you’ve labeled your emotion(s), you should proceed carefully in expressing yourself to the other party in the conflict.

Lead off with an “I” statement. As since you’re describing your emotion(s)—your feeling(s)—the perfect second word is . . . feel.

“I feel . . .”

(Do not fall for this trap: You make me feel . . . It comes across as an accusation—and begs a counter accusation!)

Now what?

A common mistake people make is to use that for their third word. “I feel that . . .” That word indicates that what will follow is a thought, not a feeling. It’s your judgment of their motivations.

Once you’ve stated your feeling—“I feel concerned” or “I feel frustrated” or “I feel discouraged” or whatever—it’s good to explain why you chose that word. A great go-to phrase is “my concern is that . . .”

So, it could go something like this:

“Sam, I feel discouraged that you were late to the meeting and that you brought the wrong presentation. My concern is that it makes us look bad—and puts you in a bad light when I know you want your career to move upward—especially because this isn’t the first time this has happened. Do you think that’s a fair concern or am I misreading the situation?”

Then let them share their perspective—and concentrate on trying to understand their point of view. Here is where you want to probe. Maybe they use a certain word in their response—let’s say “pressured.” Get some clarification. Remember, you’re seeking to understand. Something like this: “When you say pressured, what do you mean exactly? Could you give an example of what you mean?”

Don’t be afraid of asking for more than one example, but don’t overwhelm them with needing too many.

Make sure they’ve fully expressed themselves. Ask, “What else?” or “Can you say more about that?” at least three times. This can help the person clarify their thoughts to themselves. The first time you ask, they’re going to give their memorized answer. The second time you ask, they have to dig a little deeper. And when you ask “what else?” the third time, they often have to stop and think. This can get you to the real issue that’s not on the surface, and that can move you from conflict to collaboration.

Step 4—brainstorm for solutions

Once you’ve come to agreement, then you can work toward solutions.

Start brainstorming—without judgment. List every idea, no matter how unrealistic. Be open. You never know what inspiration may come upon you.

And then agree on a solution that meets everyone’s needs. For example, Sam could say, “Yeah, I think everything was getting away from me. Before I knew it, it was past time to leave and I didn’t take the time to doublecheck that everything was set.”

To which you could say, “We can’t change the past, but is there a solution that we can come to for the future? I want you to be set up for success and I’d like to feel confident, too.”

To which Sam might say, “Thanks! You know, I need to have better time management but also maybe we can do a doublecheck the night before. Then we’ll know it’s good to go.”

To which you could say, “That’s a great idea! I think double-checking would be good for both of us. Let’s set it up!”

Wrapping up

Conflict gives rise to many emotions—but how should you share those emotions? It’s important to get you centered and calm. Then you need to take stock of how you’re feeling. Be wary of labeling your emotion as “anger.” Then follow a specific structure to express yourself to the other party and work together to come up with a solution that works for all involved. Use this method and you’ll go from conflict to collaboration in no time flat!

Want more information on how you can build your conflict resolution and management skills? Check out our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration. This online class will provide you the insight and skill-building you need to resolve conflict quickly and build strong, trusting relationships.


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