Three ways to go from reacting to responding in a conflict
Updated: Jun 5
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.
Ready? Let's go!
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 caveperson's 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 - Late Arriver
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, Mary, has a habit of coming in to work late—10 minutes here, 15 minutes there—and she’s always finding loopholes so that she can do the least amount of work, which drives the hardworking Susanna crazy.
One day, Mary comes into work 40 minutes late. Irritated, Susanna curtly reminds Mary about the company policy about coming to work late. Mary gets angry and barks back at Susanna, “Stop micromanaging me!”
Susanna is definitely triggered, 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?”
This approach gives Susanna time to get calm, breathe, get some perspective before diving back into the conversation. It's not about controlling Mary - in fact, it has very little to do with Mary. It's about using an approach that is more likely to get Susanna out of brain hijack and into a state of mind that is more conducive to finding a solution. One nice outcome? By the time they actually talk together about this, Mary is more likely to be calmed down as well.
Scenario 2 - Missed deadline
Tom and Ed work for a software firm. Tom is part of the development team. He writes code for cloud applications. Ed’s work is dependent on Tom’s because he tests the applications, which puts him in a different department.
Tom’s performance is good but most of the time he misses 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 instead of just reacting.
What about those times when you find you’re in a conversation that starts to turn into a conflict and you feel yourself getting triggered? Here’s that scenario:
Scenario 3 - Butting heads
Tracy and Sharon are two employees in Human Sources at a nationwide construction company. It seems they are always butting heads.
Recently, Tracy and Sharon were in a meeting to discuss HR’s response to a critical corporate initiative. Immediately, the two women were on opposite sides of the issue, one saying the department needed to go one way and the other person 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 instead, 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.”
Just as in the earlier scenarios, Tracy is leveraging one of the most useful strategies in a conflict: postponing it to get herself in a more balanced state of mind. As my own experience has taught me, 5 minutes of stepping away, breathing and calming my nerves (and emotions) can save hours of frustration. I'm more likely to be objective and more likely to maintain an important relationship.
Remember, conflict isn’t good or bad. It’s a part of life. And managing it productively means getting yourself in a good place FIRST so you can respond with constructive behaviors that reduce the conflict and lead to greater collaboration. The secret is to resist the urge to react and instead take the time to respond.
Want to learn more? Check out “The You Turn: from Conflict to Collaboration.”In this highly interactive, online leadership workshop, you’ll learn practical skills to transform conflict situations into opportunities for stronger, healthy relationships.
Did you like this post? Try Going from Win-Lose to Win-Win in conflict.
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