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Next Steps in Managing Conflict

Pitagorsky jan2 FeatureArticleThe October article Managing Conflict and Managing Emotions led to some reader submitted questions. Last month’s article, How to Mindfully Manage Emotions, addressed the question of how to cultivate the discipline required to recognize one’s arising emotions by practicing mindfulness meditation. 

This month we will address the following questions that make use of the ability to step back and mindfully see the arising of emotions before they take over.

  • How do you distinguish what might be an emotional response from what might be merely expressing some feelings in an objective way?
  • What does one do, specifically, when there is an emotional reaction, especially at the early stage to prevent emotions from getting the best of the discussion?
  • What does one do when one discovers that one is getting emotional to stem the emotions and remain on an even keel and keep the discussion objective?

The Conflict Management Process

In my book, Managing Conflict in Projects, there is a seven step process:

  • “Stepping back to achieve objectivity
  • Focusing on the process to define how you will proceed
  • Analyzing, identifying and defining to better understand your situation
  • Seeking to understand so you get to know the parties
  • Facilitating to enable clear communication and healthy relationships
  • Addressing the issue and its content, and
  • Closing the conflict situation.”

The first step, Stepping back, is the one in which emotions are assessed and managed to achieve clarity and objectivity. The steps overlap and intertwine so that we are constantly stepping back throughout the process, not just at the beginning.

What Does It Mean to Manage Emotions?

One reader wrote “emotions are not manageable at all!” and went on to say that any attempt to manage emotions makes people upset.

Let’s be clear. What I mean by managing emotions is to be able to decide whether or not to let emotions display as behavior. Without that capacity we are slaves to our emotions, driven to act them out. 

Managing emotions is something one does for oneself. We manage our own emotions, not the emotions of other people. Further, skillfully managing emotions does not mean cutting them off. It means experiencing them fully and then being able to consciously decide what to do next. 

How to distinguish what might be an emotional response from what might be merely expressing some feelings in an objective way.

Emotions are feelings. There is a continuum of intensity from, in the case of anger, mild annoyance to fury. Expressing one’s feelings in an objective way implies that one is consciously aware of what is being said and done, what its impact may be and why.

Objectivity requires conscious thought and the ability to clearly see what is motivating speech and behavior. When passion arises because you are sure that your position is the right one, it is natural to express that passion. Will it help to reach an optimal resolution to the conflict at hand? If so then do it. If not then choose an alternative option, perhaps moderating the passion and expressing the content analytically so that facts as opposed to rhetoric make the point.

How to Stop Emotions from Getting the Best of the Discussion.

Once emotions arise there is likelihood that the content will take a backseat in the conflict. We are apt to lose track of the goal of achieving an optimal resolution. We can stop emotions from getting the best of the discussion by first recognizing them early enough to remain rational and then by bringing them to the surface by saying something like “I am feeling angry about the last thing you said about my idea being really stupid and I don’t want that to get in the way of our being able to look at the pros and cons objectively.” Or, maybe asking “You seem to be really passionate about your position, maybe we can step back and see if I can identify all the good aspects of your idea and you can do the same about mine.”

How to stem the emotions and remain on an even keel and keep the discussion objective?

Strong resolve, effort and mindfulness are brought together to manage the emotions. Once an emotion is sensed, mindfulness allows us to see it as phenomena that can be objectively observed. We do not become identified with and therefore driven by the emotion. A resolution to remain calm and focused on the objective at hand (getting to an optimal resolution in the case of conflict management) fuels the effort it takes to let the sensations of the emotion simply be felt without having to do anything about them.

One might take some conscious breaths, count to ten, or say something to oneself like “I seem to be feeling fear arising, I’ll just note it and get back to the discussion with a clear mind.”

Note that emotions are quite natural and seeing them clearly, without denying their presence or trying to eliminate them, is an integral part of effective conflict management and communication in general. The emotion is a signal that something important is happening. Heed the signal but do it consciously.

Please let us know what you think and submit any questions or comments about these issues below.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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