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3 phrases you can use instead of lashing out in conflict

Conflict can happen at any time—and usually we’re unprepared for it. At the moment, your brain is buzzing and your tongue is tied. All you know is that you’re upset.

Don’t worry about it. You don’t have to solve the conflict right in that moment. Giving yourself a time out is one of the most effective ways to manage conflict productively! It helps you get your thinking straight.

In this post, we’ll share three things you can say to remove yourself from a conflict and plan your next step . . . in other words, rewrite the script to get a better result.

Go from reacting to responding

We all know the feeling. Someone at work has just said something to anger you—maybe against you personally. You feel maligned, misunderstood. What you want to do is lash out. You are in what we at NobleEdge call brain hijack.

This state is commonly referred to as fight or flight. It’s something we inherited from our caveperson ancestors. They had all sorts of dangers to be on edge about. When they encountered a danger—saber-toothed tigers, for example—their brain went into high alert. Their body shifted its energy resources toward fighting off/fleeing from the tiger. Their sympathetic nervous system signaled the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin and cortisol. The caveman heart raced and their pupils dilated.

This is also known as the “stress response,” and it’s a state we lapse into unthinkingly even though the dangers we face on a day-to-day basis might not be so life-threatening as saber-tooth tigers. For example, public speaking, family difficulties, and conflict at work. For example, you got a promotion that your friend at work was also gunning for. Now things are awkward between you two. You definitely want to keep the friendship going, but they aren't even speaking to you outside of team meetings.

In this state, your temptation is to spontaneously react to the other person in the conflict. Lash out—choices and words you’ll probably regret later. See: Manage conflict when it starts by learning your hot buttons.

You need to move from spontaneously reacting to the stimulus to thoughtfully responding to it. Being able to respond with a clear head is extremely important when resolving conflict. See: How to calm your brain in the middle of conflict.

You need to get away from the conflict and sort out your thoughts. You don’t have to respond right away. Instead give yourself an opportunity to take a walk, breathe, get the blood back in your brain.

But how do you do that without sounding weird?

Here are three conflict scenarios and some ideas for phrases you can use.

Scenario 1

Susanna works as a paralegal in a law firm and loves her job. She is a hard worker—is proud of the fact that she always shows up for work a few minutes early. Meanwhile, her coworker, Liz, has a habit of coming in to work late—10 minutes here, 15 minutes there—and Suzanna starts to imagine that Liz is always finding loopholes so that she can do the least amount of work, which, of course, drives the hardworking Susanna crazy.

One day, Liz comes into work 40 minutes late.

Irritated, Susanna curtly reminds Liz about the company policy about coming to work late. Liz gets angry at the comment and barks back at Susanna, “Stop micromanaging me! Who do you think you are?”

Susanna is incensed at the flip comment and definitely wants to bark back, yet she takes a deep breath and says:

“We’re obviously both upset. I’d like to resolve this with you. Can we schedule some time to address this later today so we can work things out?”

By taking this approach, Susanna is purposively calming her mind and getting out of the stress response. That way, she can plan out what she wants to say with a cooler head.

What about the situation where someone has been annoying you again and again and they finally went too far? What do you do then? Here's that scenario:

Scenario 2

Tom and Ed work for a software firm. Tom is part of the development team, writing code for cloud applications. Ed’s work is dependent on Tom’s because he tests the applications in a different department.

Tom’s performance is good, but lately, he’s missing important deadlines. This delay in his deliverables makes Ed work under pressure to finish his tasks on time. But Ed holds his tongue. One Friday at 4 p.m., Tom calls Ed and says that he won’t have the code for the high-priority project to him until after five.

Ed is reminded of all those times he’s bitten his tongue—but this is really too much! Ed feels like lashing out. Instead, he closes his eyes, breathes deeply, and says:

“I need a moment before I can respond to this. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

By saying this, Ed acknowledges the situation and informs the other person that he needs time to collect his thoughts. Ultimately, by taking a few minutes to get his temper and hot buttons “cooled off,” Ed will be more equipped to respond with a constructive solution instead of just reacting and making the situation worse.

What about those times when you find you’re in a conversation with someone you work well with . . . and then suddenly, you’re blindsided by a disagreement? Here’s that scenario:

Scenario 3

Tracy and Sharon are two employees in Human Resources at a nationwide construction company.

Recently, Tracy and Sharon were in a meeting to discuss HR’s response to a critical corporate initiative. Immediately and quite surprisingly, they were on opposite sides of the issue: one saying the department needed to go one way and the other insisting it was best to go in the opposite direction.

As the person who was spearheading this project, Tracy finally took a firm stand and said, “Sharon, I don’t think we can go in the direction you want. We want to move ahead in the direction I’ve outlined”—to which Sharon angrily responded, “You’re railroading this whole effort. You have a blind spot!”

Tracy really wants to put Sharon “in her place,” but she values their relationship, which up until this conversation has always been civil. So, instead of reacting with anger, she pauses, breathes deeply, and then says:

“This is something we obviously feel passionate about from different perspectives. I’d like some time to consider things from your point of view. Let’s table this for later today.”

By acknowledging their differences and giving herself an opportunity to calm herself and consider options, Tracy makes sure she's avoiding brain hijack and instead paves the way for collaboration.

Wrapping up

Remember, conflict isn’t good or bad. It’s a part of life. Managing it productively includes responding and communicating to the other person in a calm and respectful manner. The more centered you are, the greater opportunity to turn that conflict into collaboration.

Want to learn more? Check out “The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.” In this highly interactive, online leadership workshop, we leverage the Conflict Dynamics Profile to provide insights and practical skills to transform conflict situations into opportunities for stronger, healthy relationships.

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