“Conflict can and should be handled constructively; when it is, relationships benefit. Conflict avoidance is *not* the hallmark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.” – Harriet B. Braiker
The pandemic, the rules surrounding it and the decisions that have been made throughout it are divisive topics. Now that we are all out in the world again, some of us may find ourselves in situations where our personal boundaries, and the behaviours we find acceptable, differ from those of other people. Sometimes these people are strangers, and sometimes we are surprised by the attitudes of people we thought we knew very well. This is particularly awkward in the workplace, as these are people you have been thrown together with, and with whom you spend a large amount of your time.
We have all been through the wringer, and everyone has their reasons. As John Bercow lamented a few years ago in an interview with Alistair Campbell, “I think everyone has forgotten how to disagree agreeably.” A conscious business will often look at ways to minimise conflict, but there is much you can do on a personal level to reduce this risk. I think now is a good time to offer a few tips on how to deal with potential conflict and inflammatory conversations.
1. Is It Worth It?
If somebody says something or does something that triggers you, just be mindful of whether it is really worth getting involved. Is this a hill you want to die on? Will your opposition to it incur a positive or negative outcome? Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to do nothing, as sometimes letting something play out is what creates the least damage.
2. Empathy, Not Judgement
It is very easy, during a heated moment, to forget the feelings of the other party if you disagree with them. However, their feelings are very real and just as important as yours, whether you agree with them or not. Try to come from an angle of understanding. Make a point to understand their point of view, so that you might come to a better understanding of each other. As mentioned before, be mindful that you never know what someone is going through… your empathy might be just what they need.
3. No Threatening Body Language
Being combative and inflammatory yourself is never an easy path to coming to an understanding. The best way to de-escalate a rising conflict is to be conscious of your body language. Do not intimidate in a physical fashion, and try to remain physically, if not relaxed, neutral and still. Also, try to be mindful of your gestures and facial expressions.
4. Choice of Words and Tone
Instinct might tell you to try and top the other person. This can happen in a number of ways and can very easily move into foul language, personal territory, or get off the subject. Keep your tone and phrasing measured, mindful and clean.
5. Personal Space
Should you be in an altercation with someone who is particularly worked up, watch your space. When we are feeling stressed or upset, anyone invading our personal space tends to appear either cloying, irritating or threatening. Giving somebody space not only takes these feelings away, but also shows them respect, and keeps you out of harm’s way.
6. Don’t Rise to Challenging Questions
In the heat of an argument, people can, sometimes without thinking, ask questions designed to raise the heat or to trigger you into unhelpful behaviour. Be conscious of these questions, and do your best to either ignore them or to use them to realign the conversation into a calmer place.
7. Allow Time for Reflection and Decisions
For resolution, or even just evolution, conflict needs space. Any attempt you make to pack up the situation and move in as quickly as possible will just result in either an escalation or a later resurfacing of the same issue. Allow both parties in the conflict time to reflect on what has happened, and to make decisions about how to move forward accordingly. This can only be done successfully if breathing space is present.
Disagreements are hard. Luckily, they don’t come up too often in a ‘blow up’ kind of way, but many of us are a little more on edge. Learning how to disagree mindfully and calmly will go a long way to not only de-escalating and resolving arguments but also to making people feel safer and better understood.
By Chris Thomson
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