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The Secrets to Keeping Your Cool During Conflict

February 15, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career

It’s natural to want to avoid conflict, especially in the workplace. But unresolved conflict can be harmful to your health, and to the health of your organization. Below, writer Alice Oglethorpe shares eight tricks she’s developed to help stay cool in the face of adversity.

To say I’m conflict-averse is an understatement. Even the idea of facing an upset colleague gives me a lump in my throat—and in the moment, I sometimes get so warm that I have to take my glasses off because they start to fog from the inside. It’s the opposite of professional. But I take some comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in this inability to appear cool and collected during certain moments.

“I was once in a meeting and a coworker presented one of my ideas as her own—I’d mentioned it to her in passing and never imagined she’d take ownership of it,” says Cristina D., a marketing executive in Chicago. “It wasn’t an outright attack on me, but I still got so surprised that I lost focus, got flustered, and couldn’t recover fast enough to share my other ideas. I hate that I came across as unprepared just because I got caught up in being upset!”

As dismaying as it may be to react like that, it’s also completely typical. “We interpret conflict as a threat—to our identity, relationships, job, or project we care about—and when we perceive a threat, our heart rate goes up, breathing is shortened, and you feel red in the face,” says Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing With Conflict. “Unfortunately, this makes you lose access to the prefrontal cortex, which is the rational part of your brain, and you go into fight-or-flight mode. You may end up saying things that are more aggressive than you mean to.”

What do you do when you have a tendency to get tongue-tied? Try one of these strategies:

1. Watch for early warning signs.

“For most of us, there is some signal that you’re starting to get worked up—my heart starts to thump while other women notice their hands start to shake or they get a lump in their throat,” says Lenski. “Learn what yours are, and when they start, try to excuse yourself so you can take a few breaths and calm down.” Once you get too deep into the confrontation, it can be a lot harder to quiet those physical reactions.

2. Find a conflict mantra.

“Decide on a saying that you can repeat in your head in the moment,” says Gallo. “You want to remind yourself that what you’re feeling is normal and that it will pass.” A few to try: “Conflict won’t kill me,” “Conflict is okay,” “All I have to do is listen,” and “This isn’t personal.”

3. Have a go-to script.

“Work out some kind of phrase that you can pull out of your pocket to say in moments you tend to get flustered,” says Cindi Baldi, PhD, lead data scientist and senior organizational consultant at Mouthpeace Consulting. Let’s say you get flustered any time someone brings up issues they have with your work. When that happens, make your go-to response something like: “I hadn’t thought about it that way, maybe we can come up with a solution that works for both of us.” This gives you a quick answer if you are too startled to think fast on your feet.

4. Keep it in perspective.

“The majority of us think our physical signs of discomfort are more obvious to others than they really are,” says Tammy Lenski, conflict resolution coach and author of The Conflict Pivot. “And when you worry it’s showing, your worry can make things even worse.” Her advice: Try to let go of the fear that you look as red as a strawberry, because it’s probably not as bad as you think.

5. Do some sneaky breathing techniques.

“This is the simplest, least obvious, most helpful thing you can do,” says Lenski. Whether you’re sitting in a tense meeting or dealing with an upset colleague, see if you can slow your breathing (it can help to count to four in your head if possible for each inhale and exhale) and use your whole diaphragm instead of just the top of your lungs.

6. Put some psychological distance between you and the cause of your upset.

Getting caught up in the moment and spiraling is the last thing you want to do. “Take your brain away from whatever’s happening that’s flustering you,” says Lenski. “You need to do something that will disrupt the anger or embarrassment or frustration that you’re feeling.” A few approaches to try:

7. Don’t engage if you don’t have to.

There’s no rule that you have to stick around when someone starts to attack you. “If someone puts you on the spot, say you need some time to think through the issue before responding,” says Gallo. “Buy yourself time instead of trying to have the conversation when you’re feeling heated.”

8. Control what you can.

If you can’t get away and you’re forced to respond (for instance, you’re working hard to pacify a client), try to keep your voice low, slow, and measured. “By controlling your voice, it tells the rest of your body that you’re calm,” says Gallo. “This also has the bonus of conveying to the other person that you aren’t getting worked up.” This can defuse the entire situation, since people tend to mirror the emotions of the person they’re talking to.

…And when all else fails, at least have a wardrobe that keeps you feeling calm, cool, and collected. 

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Alice Oglethorpe is a former magazine editor who is now a freelance writer based in Chicago. She writes about health and happiness in life and at work. Read more of Alice's posts.

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