There’s lots of advice about how to tackle difficult conversations but there are certain discussions you’re just better off not having at all. Some conflicts with friends, neighbors, or family should be left alone; knowing when to let it go is just as critical as knowing when to engage.
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. Therefore the first question to ask yourself is: Am I too emotional right now? If you’re angry or upset — or your colleague is — it’s not a good time to engage. It won’t help if either of you is yelling or pounding the table. There’s lots of research (see here and here) that shows that our emotional and rational minds work in parallel – when our emotional mind is on top, rationality goes out the window.
In these cases, instead of productively discussing the issue at hand, we end up in a negative emotional spiral, where both sides escalate the conflict, say hurtful things or even make threats, and aren’t able to disengage. This is spurred on by 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.
But heightened emotions aren’t the only reason to walk away from a conflict. The goal of engaging in a conflict discussion is to reach a resolution. If you don’t think you can change something with the conversation, it may not be worth having. If your colleague is stuck in her ways and has never demonstrated a willingness to concede, what do you gain by pushing her yet again? If the damage is already done — say the project was defunded last week and you’re just finding out about it — it’s probably better to let it go.
The exception to this advice is when it will make you feel better to express your opinion even if you know it won’t change the circumstances, for example, if you want to go on record as opposing the defunding. Integrity is important in professional settings and you may need to speak up as a matter of principle. But before you do that, think about collateral damage: Will engaging in the conflict damage your reputation or hurt your colleague’s sense of self-worth?
If you decide to let go of a conflict, what do you do instead? Do whatever you can to leave the situation, or at least postpone the conversation. You might say something like: “I’m not ready to have this conversation right now. I’m going to step outside to clear my head and then perhaps we can meet tomorrow to talk about this.” You can take a walk. I had one student tell me that he walked around in freezing cold weather instead of engaging in a workplace battle and it helped him address the conflict constructively later on when he cooled off. You may want to vent with a friend or a trusted colleague — someone who can talk you down or give you insight into why the other person is behaving the way he or she is. If you choose not to confront the issue directly, you need to tell yourself: “I chose to let this go. I’m not going to ruminate or retaliate because it was my decision to let go.”
Of course, whether or not to engage is not always up to you. If it’s the other party who’s having the problem, you may not be able to completely avoid having the conversation. The person may approach you after a meeting, or catch you on the phone. The best you can do in these situations is to stop yourself from getting into the negative emotional spiral. When Anne Lytle, Debra Shapiro, and I were studying dispute resolution in the late 1990s, we found people used several ways to avoid or break up a negative emotional spiral. Since then I’ve seen them work in many real-life conflicts.
First, it’s important 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 coworker’s words going over your shoulder, not hitting you in the chest. You might physically take a step aside. 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.
To defuse an emotional situation, it can help to talk about the process instead of the content. 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.” Label the interaction in its current state as unproductive and then suggest you set that process aside.
In our research on conflict resolution, we saw that most people started the conversation out on an emotional level—claiming that they’d been mistreated, framing the discussion in terms of what’s fair and what isn’t, and sometimes making threats. That behavior just cued the other party to make threats back. When you open with negative emotions, you’re virtually guaranteed to enter the conflict spiral. So you had better know how to break it. Try not reciprocating. Instead of threatening back or making your own claim to fairness, focus on interests—what you and your counterpart actually want from the situation and why. You might say something like: “Help me understand why this is such a problem.” By getting at the underlying issues, you can remain rational and hopefully defuse your colleague’s anger.
You might need to counter a claim your colleague is making — “I do think this new policy is fair,” for example — but then immediately acknowledge that you see things differently. “I have a completely different perspective, but clearly you think this is unfair, so talk to me. How can we fix this?” Focus the person on the underlying causes of the problem and what you can do together to solve it.
There’s a limit to the abuse you can — and should — take from a colleague. These tactics work to avoid or break up conflict spirals and therefore limit that abuse. But, they also go further, in that they redirect the conversation from emotions to interests — what’s causing the emotions — and so they open the door to resolving the problem.
written by Jeanne Brett