Calm, Cool, and Collected: Communication in Conflict

How do you remain calm, cool, and collected when conflicts escalate?

We’ve all been there: encountering someone in a fit of road rage; a neighbor upset about another neighbor’s transgression; dealing with a beloved toddler in the middle of a melt-down. Typically, we ignore such bad behavior, waiting for it to resolve itself. But, these may be prime opportunities to practice de-escalation techniques and communication skills.

Generally speaking, we trust that our co-workers are capable of resolving conflicts and able to avoid crisis in the workplace. If a situation does escalate, equipped and available managers step in. But consider this: according to the most recent report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), over 20,000 workers experienced trauma from workplace violence in 2018.

How does this happen?

Conflict Escalation

Multiple factors can escalate a situation, including:

  • Physical: Pain/illness, sleep deprivation, low blood sugar/dehydration, prescription changes
  • Mental or cognitive: Unhelpful thoughts/thinking patterns, negative perceptions, critical inner voice
  • Emotional: Pre-existing mood disorders, past trauma, etc.
  • Social: Lack of healthy support network, isolation
  • Environmental: Visual or auditory triggers, audience
  • Spiritual: Sense of connection to higher power or that which offers hope, faith, purpose

While a crisis is not typically caused by one event, there is often a tipping point. Most common is the death of a significant other, loss of a relationship, loss of work, homelessness, or cabin fever. A crisis occurs when people perceive that they have encountered insurmountable obstacles to their goals, their life cycle or routine is significantly disrupted, and they have no appropriate method to manage their situation. In other words, they believe they have no way through, around, or out of their perceived situation.

Communication in Conflict: Shift Your Goals

Whenever emotions are involved, communication can get tricky. It happens often: at home, in public, and at work. When people disagree, feel un-heard, or feel invalidated, a conversation can go off track.

The goals of the communication shift to de-escalation can be summarized into three objectives: 

  • Gain equilibrium/stabilization
    • This may involve identifying and removing anything that reinforces aggressive behavior.
    • Help the other party(s) identify reasons to calm down.
  • Cognitive
    • Help the other party gain control of their thoughts (and behavior).
    • Help the other party gain a sense of control.
  • Psychosocial
    • Assess internal and external exacerbating and mitigating factors.
    • Identify and choose workable alternatives.

It’s important to remember that not everyone responds the same way to threats or a crisis. For example, they might be in a flight, fight, or freeze mode, or a combination in a wide variety of degrees. There is no one “normal” range of behaviors.

De-escalation requires self-awareness of our own perceptions and assumptions, and a curious, non-judgmental mindset. Here are a few techniques that can help.

8 De-escalation Techniques

  • Be professional, and respect personal space. This can vary from person-to-person, so be sensitive to physical, confidential, and social-distance space.
  • Use non-threatening body language: stand-to -side, rather than square to other. Speak in a calm, quiet, and low(er) tone.
  • Focus on feelings. Listen, watch, and reflect. “It sounds like you are feeling…”
  • Set limits. Help identify options, choices, and consequences.
  • Ignore challenging questions. Avoid taking the bait.
  • Choose wisely in stretching rules, boundaries, and battles.
  • Allow for time.
  • Be empathetic and non-judgmental.

Communication in Conflict: Trust the Process

While there are no quick fixes when communicating during conflict, you can trust a proven process.

In Walking Through Anger: A New Design for Confronting Conflict in an Emotionally Charged World (Sounds True, October 2019), Christian Conte, PhD, shares his philosophy and evidence-based model for change called Yield Theory. This framework is designed to help anyone see the world from the perspective of another with empathy, compassion, and non-attachment, replacing any ego-driven perception of a situation (or person in a heightened emotional state).

As Conte describes it, Yield Theory Compassion is the “cornerstone of communication.” It allows leaders, managers, and colleagues to de-escalate and work through conflict without aggression or submission.

According to Conte, practicing Yield Theory involves a “constant navigation toward the position of the other” through three steps:

  • Listen: hear what is being said, verbally and non-verbally.
  • Validate: validate the feelings of the person in a heightened emotional state. Validation is only effective (and has occurred) if the subject feels validated.
  • Explore Options: explore all options and consequences of each option. Persons in a heightened emotional state often have a narrow focus, a type of tunnel vision. This is the time to introduce a macro-vision, a wider range of options, and allow for choice in behavior or actions. In essence, you are creating a safe-space that de-escalates a situation.

7 Communication Skills

This process relies on seven key communication skills to build trust:

  • Acceptance: be accepting of others and yourself (strengths, limits, and emotional/cognitive states).
  • Authenticity: be true to yourself in order to be truly available to others.
  • Compassion: be aware and understand how others are feeling.
  • Conscious education: check-in and monitor your physical being to prevent transferring internal stress into external accusation.
  • Creativity: be open, curious, and of a growth mindset.
  • Mindfulness: be mindfully and totally present. Avoid the five errors of communication:
    • Approach: be self-aware of tone, non-verbal cues, space, etc.
    • Interpretation: be aware of cultural differences, opportunities to project, blind-spots/bias, etc.
    • Judgment
    • Language
    • Omnipotence
  • Nonattachment: let go of any pre-determined outcomes to achieve the de-escalation goals. Be responsible and accountable for self and don’t take statements personally.

Communication in Conflict: If, When, and How

Attempting to intervene in a situation of road rage is never a good idea. It’s best to contact the authorities when it is safe to do so. Any situation involving a weapon (be it a car or any deadly object) should be managed by a trained specialist.

Then there are the situations when our emotions have exceeded our rationality. It happens with people we don’t know and people we know well: colleagues, friends, neighbors, and family. This is when a conflict can quickly escalate; we get hooked by our natural mimic reflex making it more difficult to disengage. In that case, walking away or postponing the conversation may be the best option.

Do’s

Here are a few tips to use this method of de-escalation and strengthen the relationship:

  • Take a physical step aside. Visualize insults passing by, missing you.
  • Talk about the process, not about the message. “I hear you are angry. I feel angry. I don’t want to raise my voice with you as it won’t be productive. I need to take a break. Can we talk about this at ___ (time).”  If you need more time to gain your equilibrium, ask for it.
  • Meet as agreed. Focus on common goals or interests.

Don’ts

  • Don’t ignore anger (yours or others), rather acknowledge it.
  • Don’t take someone else’s anger personally. Even if it is about you, recognize your own feelings about the issue, and remain calm (non-attached.)
  • Don’t feed someone’s anger by trying to stop it, rather, create a safe place to properly voice feelings.

Workplace Conflicts and Crisis

Every employer should have a Workplace Violence Prevention Plan tailored for their organization. A robust plan reflects their type of business/service and the clients they serve, resources, physical layout, organizational culture, and communication and training expectations. While it may be uncomfortable or unpleasant, all employees should participate in periodic violence prevention training to strengthen their knowledge and confidence.

The Matter of Business Ethics

We are making great strides in corporate social responsibility. Many reflect changes in business policies and practices. But when it comes to business ethics, are we really improving?

Consider this: almost 120 years ago, German socialist, economist, and politician Max Weber published his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, emphasizing that personal integrity and reputation matters: they form the basis of good business relationships. A person’s words are their bond and business can be counted on with a handshake.

Jump to the turn of the century. For six consecutive years, Fortune magazine deemed Enron one of the most innovative organizations and two months after being publicized, Enron filed for bankruptcy, bringing down companies and 1,000’s of individuals with it.

Not long after, new regulations and legislation were enacted including penalties regarding records and the accountability of auditing firms.

Then came the financial crisis of 2007-08, where organizations were deemed “too big to fail,” generating other hazards, risks, and an uneven playing field.

Headlines, book lists, and social media are filled with other examples, several from the most recent past. How did we get here? And more importantly, where do we go from here?

What We Don’t See

In Moral Mazes (Oxford University Press, 2009), Robert Jackall suggests that modern bureaucracy has created a “society within a society” in which there is a set of ethical standards that may not be consistent with those of the larger society. Our current capitalistic society goes along with these sub-societies, as long as they are successful.

Generally, the larger the organization, the more complex the strategy and operations. It might seem easier to stretch standards and change numbers to reflect what is desired, rather than what is.

Morality and Ethics in the Workplace

Research and empirical studies on moral standards and business ethics is sparse. But if we look at self-reporting surveys we can see some trends. For example:

  • 86% of managers claim moral standards at work are set by the expectations perceived in the work environment.
  • A corporation’s culture is a strong determinant of individual thought, behavior, and organizational norms.
  • Corporate or organizational culture is recognized as a key contextual influence in establishing and maintaining norms.

The Influence of Leadership

When the behaviors of leaders are seen to serve shareholders and themselves, rather than the employees, the community, the environment, or even the customers, there is an increasing sense of distrust of leaders’ motives.

Such erosion of trust may be pandemic. But as Dr. Marc J. Epstein and Kirk O. Hanson write in Rotten: Why Corporate Misconduct Continues and What to Do about It (Lanark Press, 2020), “While we don’t argue here that corporate behavior has necessarily gotten worse in recent years, we certainly don’t believe it has gotten better.”

Institutional Integrity: The Privilege of Pressure

Today’s great leaders understand and embrace the profound privilege and responsibility to create purpose and meaning that drives employee contributions, including innovation and productivity.

In most organizations, stated goals are consistent with the higher values of the organization: the vision of the leader, the organization’s mission, and a value statement. This allows all employees to operate in a coherent and consistent manner to achieve stated goals.

Addressing Injustice

Aside from the ongoing unemployment and underemployment in the midst of pandemic, we still have unresolved matters in the American workplace. One of the most pervasive is salary and pay inequities.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article (November 2020), a recent self-reported survey of U.S. companies found that only 22% of the 922 largest public companies performed a pay equity audit (PEA) between 2016 and 2020. Until this issue is addressed and adjustments made, leaders will have an ongoing issue with building trust and credibility in organizational cultures.

Discussing Ethics at Work

Questioning moral or ethical viewpoints can trigger defensiveness, outrage, and even aggression toward those who think differently. However, leaders can set clear and consistent standards and expectations through:

  1. Leadership development practices. These must include programs on ethical reasoning and decision making. This must be an ongoing process, not a one-shot affair at fulfilling a requirement. The most effective include coaching and/or mentoring where issues of personal ethics and moral responsibility are explored and aligned with organizational values.
  2. Leadership programs. These must include selection, development, evaluation and rewards policies that are aligned in such a way as to reflect their support of the values of the organization. When a person is selected for promotion or is rewarded, the organization is making a statement: this person represents our values and standards.

Moral Rebels at Work

Morality and ethics are a daily challenge for managers and leaders. Most, if not all, have made a promise to “not knowingly do harm.” Of course, this is not always an easy promise to keep. But as Peter Drucker wrote in The Essential Drucker, “Its very modesty and self-constraint make it the right rule for the ethics that managers need, the ethics of responsibility.”

Powerful forces may lead us to feel powerless to oppose. Each person must weigh alternatives and make choices in light of personal values and goals, but also with consideration to organizational and professional success. Clearly, there are times when we must speak out.

A Framework for Ethical Dilemmas

There are two major approaches philosophers use to address an ethical dilemma:

  1. Focus on the practical consequences of what we do. This argues “no harm, no foul.”
  2. Focus on the actions themselves, and the “rightness” of the action alone. This argues that some actions are simply wrong in and of themselves.

An effective process includes a solid analysis:

  1. Analyze the consequences. Explore all aspects by answering the following questions:
  2. Who will be helped by what I do?

    Who will be harmed by what I do?

    What is the benefit, and how beneficial? (i.e. minimal, incremental, extremely; short-term and/or long-term)

    What is the harm, and how harmful?

  3. Analyze the actions. Without thinking about the consequences, consider all of the options from a different perspective. Explore all options by answering these questions:
  4. How do the actions measure up against moral principles like honesty, fairness, equality, respecting the dignity of others, and people’s rights?

    Do any of the actions “cross the line?”

    If there’s a conflict between principles or between the rights of different people involved, is there a way to see one principle as more important than the others?

    Which option offers actions that are least problematic?

  5. Make a decision. Consider the answers from steps one and two, and make a decision.

Moral and ethical leadership today require great courage, wisdom, and the right framework to make decisions. And there is always room for improvement.