Conflict strikes fear in the hearts of many of us, making us want to run in the opposite direction. And others of us might find ourselves facing conflict head on, confronting it directly, although perhaps without the greatest skill. The cues that lead to conflict can be overt and direct “I’m really dissatisfied with the service you provided…” or covert and passive, “Are you sure you want to wear that to the office?” No matter its form, most of us would agree that conflict isn’t much fun. We’ve all felt the rush of emotion from a fight or flight response kicking in, as our hearts race and our breathing picks up. And although we’re hard wired for that fight or flight response, what we do when we feel it happening is key for boosting our conflict management skills. The following three strategies can be helpful for those times when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict.
Even though the fight or flight response has been with us for a long time, inherited from our ancestors, it’s not very helpful. In the old days, we needed to be able to quickly size up a lion or tiger or bear coming at us and decide if we were going to fight or run for our lives. Helpful in the past, not so much now. So, when we feel that rush of fight or flight emotion, one of the most helpful things we can do, both for ourselves and the situation, is to silently notice that it’s happening and then calm ourselves down. From that place, we can think more clearly about the situation at hand and seek to problem solve, rather than fighting or fleeing. Just by pausing, taking a few breaths or a break, re-grouping, and getting to calm, can make all the difference in managing conflict and outcome.
Seek to genuinely hear the other person’s perspective and offer what you can.
One of the other effects of a fight or flight response in the face of conflict is that it leaves us less equipped with the skills we need most in those moments, like critical thinking, collaboration, and listening. Instead, what we’re primed for is running (which might look like withdrawing from the conversation) or fighting (which could mean getting defensive or accusatory in response), and a big part of conflict management, whether we’re dealing with a co-worker in the office or a client outside the office, is being able to hear, listen to, and understand what the other person is saying. For example, a client might be dissatisfied with a bill they’ve received and call in to the firm, frustrated and upset. By making an effort to understand the frustration of the client, and listen to what they’re saying, we can discover what it is that they truly need. Perhaps expectations were not set at the outset, and they just want a thorough explanation of the charges. Or perhaps they don’t dispute the charges but they have cash flow issues and it just so happens that your firm has payment plans available. By listening to what the other person is saying and understanding what their needs are, we have a much greater chance of being able to offer what we can and give them what it is they actually need.
Know when to pass.
If you’ve calmed yourself down from fight or flight, have tried in earnest to hear, listen to and understand what the other person is saying, have tried to propose ideas and have offered what you can to meet their needs, and the conversation is at an impasse, it’s likely time to take a break and come back at another time. Or, consider bringing someone else in to the conversation to help or send the frustrated party to someone else in the organization who can speak with them further. Sometimes a fresh voice or perspective is all it takes to move things forward.
Even though it might be our tendency to respond to conflict from a position of fight or flight, we can build a toolkit of skills that are actually far more helpful for conflict management and, with practice, strengthen them.
Sarah Levitt is an executive coach and motivational speaker who helps individuals and organizations reach their greatest potential. She conducts workshops and delivers keynotes at law firms and conferences throughout the country and has presented at the North Carolina Bar Association’s Annual Meeting. Sarah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sarah Levitt is an executive coach who works with senior executives to assist them in becoming magnificent leaders. She is also a speaker whose topics include building high performing teams, leadership resilience, and The Making Magnificence Project™.