3 steps to take the heat out of workplace conflict

Day to day, most of us aren’t faced with jumping out of an airplane, or battling a sabre-tooth tiger. But physiologically, our bodies and minds respond the same way when confronted with change, conflict or other high-emotion scenarios in the workplace.

Our fight-or-flight response triggers raised cortisol levels, shallow breathing and increased heart rate. These responses can cause people to run from the confronting situation (flight) rather than face it. In fact, 67% of people will intentionally avoid a colleague instead of dealing with the situation; using tactics such as skipping meetings and missing days of work. While the opposite reaction is less common, some people resort to the fight response and engage in destructive, combative behaviour. Of course we all know that these tactics don’t make the situation go away. Conflict gone unmanaged threatens to create a hostile work environment, fuel gossip and bullying behaviours, damage productivity, disrupt innovation and dissolve problem solving capacity.

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With workplace change becoming a normalized feature of modern work environments, and many of us working longer and harder than ever before, the potential for employees to find themselves in ongoing stress-induced conflict is increasing.

This is why organizations need to actively manage conflict; and why business leaders who sharpen their emotional intelligence will go further in their careers.

Dialogic Solutions and Ursa Communications are experts in change communication and crisis and conflict management. Our companies have joined forces to bring you a series of articles to help business leaders become brave communicators.

In this first article, we propose three concrete strategies for managing your emotional instincts, and reducing the heat in conflict situations.

Know your triggers

We all have our things. Comments, words or behaviours that bring down the red mist and close our ears to dialogue and our minds to change. Whether it’s because of something we were teased for in highschool, critical feedback that we received from our boss or baggage we are carrying because of our own insecurities, it is vital to be aware of what our triggers are and to be tuned into our warning signs. Larry Dressler explains that identifying our triggers and knowing the warning signs that tell us that we are about to step into emotional quicksand is vital for empowering ourselves to exercise the self control that is needed to stay cool, calm and collected while remaining true to ourselves.

Anger is often only the tip of the iceberg

We live in a society where anger is one of the most socially acceptable emotions to express; and as such we are incredibly practiced at feeling angry and expressing anger. Recognizing and acknowledging the other emotions underlying anger often requires an exerted effort, but when it comes to taking hold of our proverbial emotional reins, getting in touch with our full range of human emotions pays off in spades. We are rarely ever just simply angry about someone’s actions or words. In addition to anger we are often also feeling disrespected, rejected, frustrated, embarrassed, hurt, threatened or even scared. Knowing our triggers is the first step in this process. After listing out triggers it is then important to identify a range of emotions associated with how we feel when we are triggered. Naming these emotions is incredibly powerful when it comes time to managing our emotional responses with confidence.

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Remember, it’s not about the facts

‘I’m in the right, you're in the wrong and anyone who looks at the facts would say the same thing’. This is the first place our brains typically go in when in the midst of a  conflict. Based on decades of research from the Harvard Negotiation Project, Stone, Patton and Heen have proven that focusing on the role of perceptions, intention and values are key to successfully navigating an emotionally charged conversation. This means sorting out the differences in the perceived meaning we are attaching to some else's words or actions, and their actual words and actions. It’s also important to acknowledge that we do not know what someone else’s intentions are, unless we allow them the opportunity to tell us.

Values are a matter of the heart and they play into how we define ourselves. Our triggers are typically tied to a personal value that we hold dear. Once we develop an understanding of our triggers, build-up an ability to recognize our warning signs and can name our emotions, it becomes easier to identify the values that are behind why certain workplace situations become emotional experiences for us.

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So what does all this mean in a business context?

Organizations are run by people, and when people show up to work, they bring their values, past experiences and full range of emotions with them.

Conflict is inevitable, and in fact it can be a good thing when it’s done right, allowing teams to raise and discuss differing ideas and approach problems in more creative and innovative ways. Emotionally aware leaders can support their teams to manage conflict gracefully, ensuring that that they continue to perform at a high level and that vital relationships are maintained.

If you’re preparing for or experiencing change, high-heat scenarios or conflict, please get in touch to see how we can support you to maintain relationships with your teams and stakeholders. Our first hour of consultation is always free and we will be happy to discuss your needs confidentially.

Keep an eye out for the next article in the series, on human-centric change leadership.


How our innovative, agile team can support your team through your biggest communications challenges:

  • Coaching & training on having brave conversations, before they need to happen.

  • Supporting you to have the vital conversations you need to have with your internal and external stakeholders at the right time.

  • Rebuilding trust and activating your team’s resilience after a major shock, setback or failure.  

  • Keeping your team motivated and performing through times of change, with tailored, human-centric communications planning and management.

  • Post-change communications to get teams from storming to performing