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How to Defuse an Emotional Conflict

When employees or partners decide to air their grievances with you, do you have the tools to neutralize their emotions?
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Over time, you're going to encounter office conflicts of all types. As a leader, it's crucial to pick and choose your battles wisely.

Jeanne Brett, professor of dispute resolution and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, says a great leader knows when to engage and when to walk away. "Knowing when to let it go is just as critical as knowing when to engage," Brett writes in Harvard Business Review. "The decision of whether to bring up and try to resolve a conflict--difficult feedback you'd like to give, a criticism you want to offer, or a case you feel you need to make--should be a rational decision."

Rational is the key word. Brett says the emotional parts and rational parts of your brain run parallel to each other, which means that when one is firing, the other isn't. If you're trying to make a rational decision when you're emotional, it won't work.

If a colleague or employee is upset, chances are a conversation about a conflict will turn into a "negative emotional spiral," thanks to our natural mimic reflex. "We start to imitate the emotions someone else is expressing. When you've gotten to this point, it can be almost impossible to clear the air," Brett writes.

As a rule of thumb, if you don't think you can come to a solution, don't start the conversation, Brett says. But if you find yourself unable to avoid the conflict--and there's no way to walk away, give time for both parties to calm down, and reschedule--follow her tips below to defuse the bomb and avoid a emotional spiral.

Resist the mimic reflex

Because people tend to mimic the behavior of others--especially during a tense, emotional situation--the first step in defusing a conflict is to remain calm. "It's hard not to yell back when you're being attacked but that's not going to help. To help you remain calm while your colleague is venting and in the process perhaps even hurling a few insults, visualize your co-worker's words going over your shoulder, not hitting you in the chest. You might physically take a step aside," Brett says. "Don't act aloof; it's important to still indicate that you're listening. But if you don't feed your counterpart's negative emotion with your own, it's likely he or she will wind down. Without the fuel of your equally strong reaction, he or she will run out of steam."

Suggest another process

If you remain calm, you can move on to the next step in neutralizing the conflict. Brett says you should "talk about the process instead of the content." For example, "You might say, 'You can yell at me and I can yell back at you but this isn't going to solve our problem. Let's try to see how we might fix this,'" she says. "Label the interaction in its current state as unproductive and then suggest you set that process aside."

Focus on their interests

Brett says if you can focus on what other people want from the situation, you can keep their emotions from boiling over. She suggests saying something like, "Help me understand why this is such a problem." Once they start explaining, they'll switch from being emotional to semi-rational and you can talk them down even further. "By getting at the underlying issues, you can remain rational and hopefully defuse your colleague's anger," she says. "Focus the person on the underlying causes of the problem and what you can do together to solve it."

Last updated: Jun 11, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a staff writer for Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and local politics for The Brooklyn Paper and was the editor of Park Slope Patch. He has also reported on the West Bank and Moscow for Tablet Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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