How to make conflict more palatable

How to make conflict more palatable
By Paul Clifford

There are those amongst us who don't bat an eyelid at the idea of disagreeing with someone or giving someone feedback the receiver won't like. For these people there is little emotion in these tasks. However, for many others the idea of expressing a divergent view or confronting someone with an unpalatable message is highly stressful. Like the joke about the person who’d choose being in the casket over doing the eulogy, some would rather anything else than face the potential for conflict.

So how does someone with such an emotional response to giving feedback or facing any other potential confrontation go about the task of reducing the emotional impact?  Here are some suggestions.

1. Undertake self-analysis

At the risk of immediately scaring off a number of readers, I have placed this at number one on the list because I believe it is central to minimising the emotional impact in this area.  This doesn’t mean seeing a therapist per se.  It means spending some time trying to understand why you feel the way you do about confrontation.  A lot of the time it boils down to our fear of being disliked. This may take some time to shift but if you can get to the point where you are genuinely not concerned by the fact that some people don't like what you have said or done, it can be highly liberating.

2. Counter the 'end of the world is coming' thinking

Sometimes a lot of our fear of confrontation comes from our erroneous belief that confrontation will bring on catastrophic outcomes.  However, reality is often far less eventful. Whilst on some occasions we may wear an initial outburst from someone who doesn't like what we say, very soon after things often go back to the way they were, particularly if your response is understated. The catastrophe is often only in our heads. As Mark Twain said "I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened".

3. Don't aim to win the argument

If you approach a conversation seeking to win, you've already set yourself up for confrontation and stress.  Adopting a 'winning' mindset commits you to a position before you've already begun which means you are not going to be listening for new information. If the other party senses you have pre-judged the situation they are likely to cease any cooperation with you and your conversation will become a battle of wills that brings no real resolution. Worse still, committing to a position breeds defensiveness in you if your position is challenged. This fuels anger in you and before you know it you'll be the one making inflammatory comments that escalate tension and raise your anxiety and stress levels through the roof.

4. Put aside negative feelings for the person

You may dislike the person you are engaging with but taking that into the conversation is a recipe for high blood pressure. It's important to, at least temporarily, remove emotion about the person. As soon as you let your feelings about the person get in the way you will significantly undermine your ability to execute the skills required to take the conversation where you ideally want it to go.

5. Focus on de-escalation

This includes reaffirming your positive intention to have a constructive conversation, demonstrating empathy particularly in the opening sections of the conversation, keeping an open mind by suspending judgement (that includes not judging yourself), paraphrasing what the other person said even when they make inflammatory comments, and remaining genuinely curious like an impartial observer. Practice strategies that will keep the conversation calm as much as possible. With a few well thought out questions and a determination to take the heat out of the conversation you can calm down almost any of the best conversation aggressors going around.

Giving feedback or facing any other potential confrontation doesn’t have to be as difficult as we often think it is.  However, to get to that stage where we are ok, rather than petrified, at the thought of facing conflict, we need to work on our emotional control.  This requires two sets of actions.  Firstly, working on our thoughts about conflict – what are we saying to ourselves about it, and secondly, our skills – the way we go about the conversation.  Being competent in this area doesn’t have to be confined to the genetically gifted.     

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Guest Thursday, 23 May 2019