Managing and dealing with conflict in both the workplace and in our personal life is a key component to building and maintaining healthy relationships. We have all lost our power or position through the wrath or negative behaviour of another or in this battle for supremacy have over extended our own power to push ourselves as the ultimate authority. Conflict is not a one sided game and with better self awareness and emotional management we can begin to better manage others by understanding what part our own behaviour plays in manifesting, fuelling or even minimizing conflict.

The leader that you are today is a byproduct of your entire life’s journey and as stated by Daniel Goldman: “Emotional intelligence begins to develop in the earliest years. All the small exchanges children have with their parents, teachers, and with each other carry emotional messages.” The complexity of human behaviour can impact on our ability to manage real life situations in real time. However, when this leadership skill is better understood then we can take the learning forward in both our personal and professional life. The question is: What insight would build better levels of emotional management into the roles of leaders and the service industry as a whole?

In reference to conflict we often use comments like – you need to have a tough skin, don’t take it personally, or water off a ducks back. Although we do need to have this level of reserve but more important we need a better understanding of how can we manage the negative states of others without engaging in the conflict ourselves? The first step of managing any conflict is to know your own limits and learn to send positive self talk messages to yourself that act as your own internal coach and positive influence. In customer service roles I used my own mantra – ‘my job is not to judge – my job is to serve.’ With this message it began to help me focus on the task at hand as I know if I let the devil on my shoulder lead me I might just let his voice be heard.

The next step is to know your opponent and begin to see the conflict as a game. Humans have been using forms of game play throughout our development and from romantic flirting to war we engage in behaviour in order to obtain a desired result from the other. In times of higher levels of emotion we often begin to think less logical and gravitate towards unconscious techniques that we believe will be beneficial in protecting ourselves and our position. If this was to be a physical battle then we would seek to weaken our opponent through the use of physical weapons and aim to strike at areas of their body that would render them weaker or helpless. If we replace the battle field with an office floor and the sword with words and gestures then the brain still must seek techniques to protect ourselves from proposed risk or mental harm.

To assist in this influencing both our conscious and unconscious mind seeks out learned behaviours from our past that has either worked for ourselves or from those that we have observed as an advantage to others. In managing conflict we look at a combination of learned behaviour as on one side a learned behaviour is driven by those actions that you have experienced to win position. However, we also have innate behaviours that we develop on your own, which do not need to be taught or learned. You are in essence born with the propensity to display the behaviour. Whether or not you continue to display it could, in some cases, still depend on whether or how the behaviour is reinforced or found to be useful.

In simpler terms, innate behaviour is just what you do naturally, with no clue of why or where you learned it. When a baby is not comfortable, they begin to cry to gain the attention of their parents. This is an innate behaviour. However, when that baby cries and that parent reinforces that behaviour with a pacifier then that behaviour has shown to work and might develop as a learned behaviour later in life. As young adults if we continuously whine and repeat over and over our want and this results in a positive outcome or we see that aggression such as finger pointing and shouting has resulted in the other person backing down and giving in then the brain will store this as potential weapons. Hence during times of volatility the brain will seek out ways to protect and use what it sees as successful behaviours and solutions to manage conflict.

As a leader review the people around you and the volume of different types of behaviours and the techniques that each use as weapons to gain advantage. Whether it is silent treatment, sarcasm, bullying or shouting they are all equal and have proven effective at some stage of that person’s behavioural development. See behaviour in two camps: Neutral and Non Neutral as when one person is experience heighten emotions in the non neutral zone they will send out invitations to the other person to join them. These invitations or techniques can take many forms depending on the level of learned behaviours that they have stored.

We all have the choice to accept or not an invitation and now that you see them as simply that – just do not RSVP. I appreciate that this is easier said than done as we all have our own learned behaviour that need to be recognised and during increased emotions one must manage the three states of conflict: the other persons learned behaviour, your desired reaction to that behaviour and you own learned behaviour. Daniel Goldman said this best ‘If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.’

If someone is shouting and belittling you by calling you or your company disrespectful names – ask yourself this question: Are they calling me that name or are they using name calling as a technique to gain power over me? Once filtered this same self- talk can be used for most learned behaviours and action they use similar techniques when engaging in conflict. To them it makes sense as the unconscious mind has not recognised that the stage and the drama is different hence the approach may not be applicable. Seeing the behaviour in this way will assist you to focus on the strategy needed to calm the person and send positive invitations for them to join you in the neutral zone. Before you ever begin to attempt to find a resolution you must first manage the behaviour and ensure that appropriate boundaries of behaviour are established.

It has been many years since I read Stephen Coveys – 7 Habits but the two words that I still carry with me today are courage and consideration as two key components to not only manage conflict but to find resolution. We must take the time to listen not only to what is being said but to understand why the person has chosen this method to express their frustration. Recognise their behaviour as more of an expression of who they are and where they have come from and with better empathy how they are feeling exposed. This style of care and emotional management will bring you closer to managing to conflict and building a more secure resolution.

We must also have the courage to express boundaries and stand by the consequence that we set for others negative and destructive actions. One must also lead by example and put in place the foundation that is required to build a positive and healthy relationship with others. Do not see an apology as a sign of weakness as by taking responsibility and recognise for our failures as negative we can establish new more positive learned behaviours. When managing conflict the role of a leader can be like the role of a parent and focus on putting in place an environment and culture that allows and respects antonym and expression whilst respecting others.

Dale Smith
Dale Smith is Managing Director of Bridge Training and Events.
Bridge will be running a series of events on Leadership Skills including assertiveness and dealing with conflict. Check out for further information on dates and how to book a complimentary place.

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