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Handling Conflicts by Dealing with Emotions

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Emotions are at the heart of conflicts, influencing their initiation, escalation and dynamics. Effectively managing your own emotions and understanding those of others can greatly impact the outcome of a conflict. Two steps to be taken are to label emotions, and take control and determine which emotion you want to focus on.

Marion Løken spoke about handling conflicts in teams at NDC Oslo 2023.

It’s crucial to proactively handle your emotions, Løken said. The first step in dealing with your emotions during a conflict is to label them. Are you feeling stressed, worried, irritated, angry, or furious? Each of these emotional states has distinct origins and varying levels of intensity.

Once you have identified your emotional state, you can better manage your emotions, Løken said. This is particularly relevant when experiencing an amygdala hijack, where the primitive part of your brain takes over rational thinking and triggers flight, fight, or freeze responses. When you understand what’s happening, you can begin to self-regulate.

Refining your labelling of emotion can help prevent overreacting in situations, as Løken explained:

If you tend to use the term "irritated" for every situation and respond in the same manner, there’s a higher chance of overreacting frequently. However, if you’re simply feeling "peeved" or "slightly irritated," it’s important to adjust your reaction accordingly. Often, just asking yourself, "Am I truly that upset?" can make a difference.

The second step in dealing with emotions is to take control and determine which emotion you want to focus on, Løken said. Humans can experience multiple feelings simultaneously. During conflicts, you may feel a combination of strong emotions like irritation and worry, fury and helplessness, or anger and focus. Instead of allowing yourself to be consumed by negative emotions, it’s beneficial to choose ONE emotion that can help you the most, Løken suggested.

A particularly useful emotion in most situations is feeling "surprised". Being in a state of surprise (rather than shock) can truly make a significant difference in how you think and act during a conflict, as Løken explained:

Instead of asking yourself, "What, THE HELL, happened?" (shocked), try simply asking, "What happened?" (surprised) Notice the difference in how it feels? This slight reframing of your emotional state can positively impact your mindset and promote kindness in your behaviour.

If you manage to see a conflict as a learning opportunity, you have already won, Løken concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Marion Løken about handling conflicts.

InfoQ: What role does psychological safety play in dealing with conflicts?

Marion Løken: Psychological safety serves as the foundation for and is the result of good conflicts, Løken said. If you fear retaliation, you won’t address issues, express concerns, or generate your best ideas, she added. Trust, respect, and accountability are crucial for creating a team environment where individuals feel comfortable being vulnerable and speaking up.

When you take the risk (or chance) of being open with others, it reinforces trust within the team and contributes to psychological safety. Brené Brown, a researcher and author, proposes the idea that courage is contagious, generating a ripple effect.

Similarly, this concept can be applied to dissent. When an individual bravely raises a concern and the team effectively addresses it, it just gives everyone a boost of confidence and raises the trust level. It is then easier for the next conflict to be dealt with well.

InfoQ: What if it turns out that people don’t feel safe? How can we handle that?

Løken: You know, just declaring a space as "safe" doesn’t necessarily make people feel safe. It’s important for individuals to genuinely sense that safety.

I’m not entirely sure how we go about creating that feeling. Perhaps it involves people experiencing - and you demonstrating - signs or cues that contribute to a sense of security. So, one idea could be to encourage people to try it out with minor conflicts, and experiment "safely" to feel safe.

InfoQ: How can we hack our emotional response with curiosity?

Løken: Curiosity fuels both our sense of surprise and our desire for knowledge. It creates a positive mindset and fosters an eagerness to understand and learn. Both are critical for good conflict resolution.

In conflicts, curiosity can be summoned in various ways. Firstly, being curious about the root cause of our reactions is important. Why do we feel so upset? Were we aware that this subject would evoke such strong emotions? Which aspects of our identity, status, or autonomy are being challenged? Secondly, curiosity extends to seeking others’ perspectives and understanding why they perceive things differently.

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