How to Think rather than React during conflict

How many of your New Year’s resolutions are still on course? Some I hope. Here is one to add to your list that could have a profound impact on your most important relationships. Give it a go!

Think of the last conflict you have been involved in, in December, or during the festive period perhaps? Come on, be honest! During the conflict, were you using words and a tone of voice that encouraged the other person to think, or to react? Let me guess, there wasn’t a lot of clear thinking going on but probably a lot of reacting. The reason behind this is that when we are blocked from getting what we want we tend to try to cause others to react as a way of manipulating them. We learn this approach at a very young age (babies don’t scream and cry for nothing). This strategy works well sometimes but if it is our default means of handling conflict, relationships will suffer.

What is your way of getting others to react? Is it by using sarcasm, criticism, patronising, accusing, belittling, undermining, or ‘playing the victim’? More importantly, how do you deliver your ‘message’ – shouting, the silent treatment, irritating tone of voice, or aggressive body language? Whatever message you choose the question to ask is: is my approach causing the other person to react or rather to think? The answer is usually very obvious. If you are encouraging others to think they are not shouting back, being defensive, walking away, being moody, or ‘kicking the cat’ (or dog if you prefer). If any of these are the reactions you normally get, read on…

To avoid causing others to react we first need to get out of reactive mode ourselves. In other words, if we are angry, we can forget about trying to manage the conflict, we will only make matters worse. Most conflicts would benefit from a momentary cooling off period before launching into an ‘attack’. If a colleague, partner, teenager, customer or friend has upset you, take a moment to deal with your anger. Step back, take a deep breath, count to 5, or talk yourself down (“I can choose a different way to respond”). These strategies help deal with our adrenalin rush, which kick-starts our ‘reactive’ mode.

You might be thinking that keeping calm is not as effective as getting stuck in, showing people how angry you are, and getting them to do something. I agree there may be times when showing anger in this way is appropriate. However, most of the time behaving in this way is more about how we learn habitually to deal with conflict and letting off steam.

Stay in a thinking rather than reactive mode so you can explain your feelings and needs better. More importantly your ‘opponent’ will be better able to ‘hear’ what you are saying (because you have not caused them to react) and therefore act upon it (better outcomes).

The flipside of this approach is that it requires a great deal of clarity (particularly with teenagers!). You will need to explain clearly what you want and why you want it, with some ‘consequences’ if need be.

Put this approach on your New Year’s list. It’s very rewarding and keeps you in control in more ways than one.

Eamonn Dennis