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Addressing the Emotions of Conflict

When we become aware of a disagreement and realize we are part of it, our first response is emotional.

Whether at work or in a family situation or a legal proceeding, the hurt we feel, the hurt that is felt first through the same part of the brain that feels physical pain, can become the barrier to a satisfactory resolution. Without addressing the hurt, we might have an agreement on actions but not a resolution of the underlying pain or sense of injustice we feel.

The difficulty comes in knowing how to manage the hurt or any of the other painful feelings that come with disagreements, so here’s a set of suggestions that might help.

First, acknowledge your own feelings. Don’t be above them or try to stifle them or “get over” them. They are yours, they are legitimate, and they need to be acknowledged, most importantly, by you. If you don’t acknowledge them, then you can’t articulate them when talking about the disagreement or find ways to address them as part of the resolution. In addition, the other party will never know about these feelings and, as a result, won’t be able to understand or address them either.

Second, express these emotions appropriately even if you have to request a bit of time to consider the situation in private. Write them out or tell a friend or go to the beach and stare at the waves or do some strenuous exercise and burn off the energy created by being hurt. Do whatever it takes to acknowledge and give clear expression to the feelings in a safe way and without causing anyone else hurt or pain. Others should not be the target of your expression even if they are the people with whom you disagree.

Third, put the feelings aside and focus on thinking clearly.
I am not suggesting in any way that you ignore or deny the feelings – you have already expressed them – but shift the focus from the hurt to the solution. The feelings won’t go away, but having acknowledged them makes it easier to address them in the process of resolution. You might even try visualizing the feelings as a blob sitting beside you or on a piece of paper on your desk. They are there and you recognize them, but they are not overwhelming you so you can discuss them thoughtfully and effectively.

Last, now that your feelings have been expressed, you can start the serious part of the resolution process – listening – and begin to think about the other person’s feelings and needs. With your own feelings under control you can listen more effectively, think more strategically, and work on a resolution that addresses everyone’s issues. Because you have recognized your own feelings, you can be sure they will be addressed in the resolution, and because you can acknowledge the feelings of others, you can support the fairness of the resolution process and not consider the whole process as payback.

This process applies to any situation where you are overwhelmed by feelings and emotions – at work, at home, in a community group of some kind. At work we try to be appropriately professional at all times, and most of the time we can find a way to take a necessary break to understand and acknowledge those emotions. At home we may not be able to get the time or privacy we need and will have to find strategies to slow down the process until we can get past the strong feelings that cloud judgment.

Many times we don’t want to acknowledge the feelings when we first feel them because we are afraid they will overwhelm us and interfere with our ability to be effective. Actually, not acknowledging them creates an even bigger problem. You can’t address what is not acknowledged, so a resolution based on denying the feelings won’t be successful for very long. The feelings will demand to be addressed sooner or later, and sooner is definitely better.

Take a deep breath, figure out what you are feeling, acknowledge it, and then go back into the room with a clearer head and a more sympathetic heart.
They both make it easier to sort out the disagreement.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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