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The right way to "emote" during conflict

It’s no surprise that emotions can run high when in a conflict. Yet, did you know it’s possible to express feelings of anger and frustration AND still build strong trusting relationships while resolving a conflict?

In our leadership workshop, The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration, we explain the difference between Displaying Anger—which is an active-destructive conflict behavior that will never get you anywhere near collaboration—and Expressing Emotion—which is an active-constructive conflict behavior and usually leads to a solution everyone can get behind.

First, let’s define our terms:

  • Displaying Anger is acting out your emotions. Fireworks. Yelling. Pounding the desktop. Displaying anger destroys trust. True communication is over. Such displays only escalate the conflict. A fairly minor disagreement can become quite serious when one of the parties “loses it.”

  • Expressing Emotion is talking about your feelings, maybe with a little bit of heat, but just talking. Choosing your words carefully. Keeping them courteous and professional.

Anger—all emotions, really—should be expressed during conflict. (In fact, suppressed anger can leak out as demeaning or retaliatory behaviors—and that can lead to a retaliatory spiral.) But expressed the right way. Assertively and respectfully.

A brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists revealed that verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger, and pain less intense. When you put feelings into words, you're activating the brain's prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. The prefrontal brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior. Meanwhile, the amygdala is what some call our “reptile brain.” They call it that because it works on the most basic, pre-thought levels. It spurs your body into action before your cognitive brain even knows what’s going on. This is your fight-or-flight response.

So how do we express our extreme feelings while maintaining our cool? Here are some steps you can take:

Understand your hot buttons—Learning more about what angers you lessens the chances of being blindsided during a conflict. Your hot buttons, also known as triggers, can be thought of as the kinds of people, situations, or behaviors that are especially likely to irritate or upset you. When you know your hot buttons, you are more likely to keep your emotions under control. You can thoughtfully respond instead of emotionally react. See: Manage Conflict When it Starts by Learning Your Hot Buttons

Recognize early warning signs of an angry outburst—Learn to recognize the physical sensations and behaviors that precede your anger: muscle tension, clenched fists, increased heart rate, sweating or flushing, shallow and rapid breathing, knots in the stomach, trembling, and headache.

Don’t suppress anger—Yes, blowing up at a colleague is unprofessional. But stuffing the anger only makes things worse. Research by Stanford professor James Gross has shown that emotional suppression is probably the worst strategy for regulating emotions. The feelings don’t go away. Instead, they fester. That’s just asking for an eruption.

Understand why you’re angry—If it’s not a hot button, spend a little bit of time trying to figure out exactly what specific facets of the conflict are making you feel angry. Is it someone else’s behavior? Or is it your own? The more you can understand what's going on with you, the better chance you can become more objective and move through the anger.

Take a time out—Take a walk around the block. Breathe deeply. (Smooth, rhythmic breaths cause our stress hormones to drop.) Have a drink of water. Practice some mindfulness. View your anger from a distance, in a non-judgmental manner. This often brings insight into what you’re really angry about. See: How to Calm Your Brain in the Middle of Conflict

Reframe the situation—try putting yourself in the other person’s position and understanding their point of view. Describe the conflict from the other person’s perspective. Assume the person has positive intent. He or she is just looking for the best solution, like you. Instead of blowing up, get curious. Ask questions. “Could you give me an example of what you mean when you say X?” The other person will see that you’re taking them seriously and that should help lower their “temperature,” too.

Express your emotions constructively—Openly and honestly tell the other person how you’re feeling. Use “I” statements. Not, “you said this” or “you did that.” “You” messages express blame, as in, “You make me want to scream!” The other person usually responds defensively and is not open to hearing our feelings or ideas for solutions to the problem. The more explanation you can provide about yourself, the more informative it will be for the other person and move you toward collaboration.

Take the first step—We call this Reaching Out, another active-constructive conflict behavior. Don’t wait for the other to make the first move. Own your contribution to the conflict. If we’re asking the other person to be vulnerable and explore their part in this disagreement, we need to model that behavior. You can only control yourself. That’s why we call our leadership training The You Turn!

Focus on the problem, not the person—Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” Strive to have a Great Mind. Conflict that focuses on ideas, rather than on the personalities and shortcomings of the people involved, can result in creativity, productivity, teamwork, and improved group relations. Conflict that focuses on people, on the other hand, can escalate rapidly and unpleasantly and have quite detrimental and far-reaching effects.

Wrapping up

Conflict is inevitable. And by expressing your emotions in a healthy way, keeping the conversation focused on ideas, not people, you can generate some great creative solutions using everyone’s input.

Want to learn more? Check out our workshop The You Turn: From Conflict to Collaboration on our website. During this interactive online leadership development session, participants complete and receive a personalized report of their Conflict Dynamics Profile that measures their tendency to engage in constructive and destructive behaviors.


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