In my work as a business owner and a coach I am privy to many conflicts of many kinds. Sometimes I feel like I’m a conflict magnet. In fact I’ve had colleagues joke with me that I’m a lightening rod for such. I guess that’s what you get when you climb the emotional antenna of someone’s work life. It’s bound to happen, especially during stormy weather.
But it does allow me to see different ways people handle escalating situations. I’ve seen ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ scenarios.
Here are three simple ways to avoid an emotional boil over during a conflict – that moment when the tempers flare, people say or do things they wish they had not, or worse – create irreversible situations that are against their own best interests.
These three personal interventions are simple, easy to understand, and well within reach of any of us, even in our worst moments.
Recognize when you are about to boil over
Don’t wait until after the fact. Realize ahead of time when the pressure is nearing your maximum for that day, when you are feeling agitated, irritated and your ‘buttons’ being pressed.
It doesn’t matter whether you are experiencing justified anger or not. That can be subjective anyway in most workplace situations. What matters in the moment is how you are about to handle that anger.
Psychologist Henry Cloud tells us that when conflicts escalate emotionally our brains become awash in stress hormones that impede our ability to think clearly and speak wisely. This is when words are spoken, emails are written, and decisions are made that all regret eventually when things settle down. It’s akin to the mess on the stove when a pot of spaghetti boils over.
A little self examination is helpful here. Can you feel it when you’re blood pressure is rising? How about your tone of voice? Or the reactions of others – can you detect when are they becoming increasingly hostile or defensive? Is everything getting on your nerves as opposed to a specific situation? Learn to recognize when you’ve about reached your boiling point.
Then pay attention to this next step.
Pull away from the heat
Break in on the moment to disrupt an escalation. Remove yourself from the situation if only for a few minutes. Get up and walk away, turn away or get out of the way. Stop responding with email salvo’s. Whatever it takes you must disengage long enough to disable that lower brain fight or flight sequence that we all experience when the emotions peak.
This is not only an appropriate boundary to regain your emotional balance, but allows both parties to regain a state of mind that can be more rational. We can get into a vortex of words and offense that will only get worse unless that pattern is broken.
It is a leadership skill learned over time to stay with a conflict but to disrupt an escalation. Huge difference there. Huge.
Most conflicts are not scheduled ahead of time into your calendar. The force their way onto it. But don’t try to be efficient with an escalating conflict. Take the time to weigh your words so that they can stand alone without insult or emotion. That always produces the better outcomes.
Check the temperature on the stove
Once you’ve pulled away from the heat, take a good look at the conditions that led to the boil up. If the heat is too high in your workplace then it’s time to make some adjustments. This is both an internal as well as an external exercise. What you cannot afford is to do nothing. If you don’t make adjustments the very same thing is likely to happen again.
Try to look for a logical and thoughtful pattern of thinking to replace the emotion-only exchanges that have kicked into overdrive. Why has the situation become so hot? What are the roots to the conflict and the escalating responses. What are the personal offenses that are being aroused on both sides? How might your words, behaviors and attitudes be adjusted to minimize the sense of threat or personal offense to both yourself and to the other?
The carnage an emotional boil over leaves behind can detract from the progress your team desires to make. And sour vital relationships important to all involved.
With a little intentional and doable effort, you can avoid those unnecessary boil overs, and spare a mess that you wish had never been made.