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Faith WoodConflict is natural and often unavoidable. But when emotion takes centre stage, it can lead to hostility.

We’ve all encountered unproductive, frustrating or infuriating situations. We know how they make us feel.

What’s often less obvious is the degree to which nonverbal nuances contributed to the problem. Take the way our facial micro gestures (specifically around the mouth) can project a sense of honesty or deception. Or note the impact of the speed of a person’s speech, an arrogant demeanour, or a poorly delivered thought or idea. These nuances could be the basis for an article all by themselves.

But here I’d like to focus on how to navigate communications during conflict with a little more ease and flow.

Conflict is not always bad – sometimes it reveals a level of passion in a relationship (just so long as passion doesn’t become violent). Expressing strong opinions isn’t a problem but insisting that everyone share your interpretation probably is.

The challenge is that depending on your experiences with conflict, you have chosen to be either an avoider or a seeker.

Conflict-avoidant people are reluctant to speak up. Thus, they miss out on airing their own objectives and often forfeit the respect of those around them.

Conflict seekers get a thrill from relentlessly asserting their agendas, even to their own detriment.

Neither extreme is helpful. We all must learn to navigate conflict with more ease and flow.

Creative solutions to complex and challenging problems come from a willingness to constructively navigate civilized disagreements. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible.

Here are six tips for navigating an emotionally-charged conflict:

  • Be proactive. Head off problems before they snowball. Ask: “How are we doing? What can I do to improve the effectiveness of our relationship?”
  • Don’t wait for conflict before establishing ground rules around respectful communications. Discuss how disagreements will be aired and heard well in advance of a problem.
  • Whenever possible, don’t bring in invisible third parties. Be accountable for your opinion without feeling the need to add words like “we all” or “everyone believes.” This is an attempt to validate your point of view by appearing to have a larger group on your side of the issue. If those individuals are not physically part of the discussion, don’t include them vicariously.
  • Keep a private disagreement private. Making private disagreements public increases the tension around the issues because people become more defensive the more public an issue becomes. When one becomes embarrassed or feels shamed, negative emotions are likely.
  • Stop making it a personal attack. People respond best when they feel they’re understood and not looked down on. Everyone involved in a conflict needs to be prepared to discuss the issue and all the emotions being triggered. Keep the discussion focused on the problem and avoid making things more volatile through attacks on a person’s character.
  • Generate multiple alternatives when conflict arises. Consider four or five options at once – even some you don’t support. Multiple alternatives help defuse conflict and reduce the chance that individuals polarize around just two possibilities – us or them.

It was interesting watching how the 2019 federal election played out on live television. It was ugly. We need to demand more from our leaders, and expect a more dignified approach to conflict and dispute management.

Our leaders should, after all, be role models for communication and leadership. Letting their hostile emotions take centre stage served no one.

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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