In a 1997 article published in the Harvard Business Review, Eisenhardt, Kahwajy and Bourgeois argue that the absence of conflict within work teams is not harmony, it’s apathy. The underlying idea is that having disagreements at work can be a good thing. People who disagree often see problems from different angles, which creates opportunities to challenge the status quo.
What’s the issue, then? We are very good at making things personal. Banal work discussions can easily escalate into heated arguments and even rivalries. We are not (always) rational decision makers. Ego can get in the way and make us lose focus on what our actual goals are.
Relationship conflict is unhealthy and needs to be de-escalated. In this issue, 5 Master Negotiators will give you their best tips on how to de-escalate relationship conflict and how to prevent it from happening. Ready? Go!
Table of Contents
Understand the power of connection
Having a background in crisis negotiations, I’ve come to appreciate the overwhelming power of emotion in decision-making. So often, people in crisis have suffered a recent triggering event causing anxiety, stress, loss, trauma and isolation. Without first having an appreciation and understanding of their situation, we are unable to effectively work with them as a problem-solver.
However, even the right answer to their situation may be ignored because we don’t have the proper relationship with the person who needs our help. I teach police officers that in tense situations if time allows, our goal should not be to get the person to “free the hostage,” rather, it is to form a bond with that individual. It’s only once the bond is established, that we will have the power and influence we need to peacefully resolve the situation.
This is a delicate process that must be done without our negotiation partner feeling pressure or coercion, almost to the point where our negotiator tries not to exist, giving a real sense of autonomy to the person we’re working with. When they have that freedom to choose an outcome, (that we have guided them toward), we will more likely find success as they will fully commit to this course of action.
Build rapport right from the start
“San Francisco Suicide Prevention, my name is Shane, what is your name?”
As a suicide hotline volunteer for several years, skipping rapport building with callers was a common mistake I made. It felt natural to jump straight to the issue causing suicidal thoughts. However, entering a difficult conversation without building rapport first is like applying sunscreen post-burn—it can hurt. Instead, consider asking specific questions at the beginning of your next negotiation. For example, you could use elements from the other party’s LinkedIn profile as a starting point:
- Your profile says you’re a [JOB TITLE]. What’s your most exciting project right now?
- Your post last week about [TOPIC] was great! What inspired you to write it?
- I saw you went to [University]. My sister went there! Did you enjoy the city?
Building rapport establishes a more relational environment. Not doing so may result in transactional feelings. Advanced negotiators know that building rapport is foundational. If you’re looking for a challenge—find an uncommon commonality with your counterpart at the beginning of your negotiation. The more uncommon it is, the stronger your rapport will be.
Explore the other person’s concerns
The only way to de-escalate a tense situation is to get to the root cause of that tension. People do not generally enjoy prolonged, emotionally charged situations in their personal lives, so if a situation is tense, there is probably a very good reason. In my role as mediator, my mission is to uncover those reasons for the parties involved.
Often, the parties cannot or will not articulate their deepest concerns, so sit with them, make small talk, and let them know that you are a safe person to talk to and that you are there to listen to them without judgment. Once a rapport is established, the parties are often ready to open up about the surface reason that brought them to your office.
Listen silently, while being clear that you care and are paying attention to every word the party is saying. Also, listen for cues that indicate the issues lying under the surface and slowly ask questions about those concerns. Eventually, like a spool of yarn, the tension unravels, and the party is in a position to be spun back together, but this time with much less (or none) of the angst that caused the initial tension.
Keep negative emotions at bay
In conflictual situations, we often like to think of ourselves as being neutral or wanting to calm the counterpart down. What if we are the person who is emotionally triggered? How can we handle a conflict then?
Negotiation is a pre-conflict situation: There is a tension, but the interest of finding a solution is higher than the unpleasant emotions that we might feel (mainly frustration or anger). Trained negotiators also experience these emotions, but still, they remain focused and do their best to find a zone of possible agreements.
A negotiation turns into a conflict when unpleasant emotions dominate and make us forget why we are negotiating in the first place. When the situation emotionally triggers us, our limbic and reptilian brains take the control: we can only fight, flight or freeze.
Only two behaviors will help you in this situation: breathe slowly (in order to make your brain understand that there is no death danger in this situation) and use all your neurons and will power in order to remember why you are negotiating and what do you need from the other person.
Adopt the right mindset
Conflict is exacerbated by three things: assumptions, dehumanization and control. When we de-escalate or attempt to prevent conflict in the first place, we can challenge ourselves and others to:
- Check Assumptions: We tend to actively look for information to support why we are right and ignore areas of potential agreement. Assumptions create a false sense of confidence which is detrimental to de-escalation. Ask: What assumptions am I walking into this conversation with? What do I believe I know about this person? What might they believe they know about me?
- Humanize Your Adversary: In a disagreement, we can lose sight of the fact that we are speaking to a person. We begin to see them as their ideas, their words and their positions. In those moments, you must humanize the individual ‘across the table’ from you and see them for who they are beyond this interaction. Before the discussion, make a short list of previous positive interactions with them. Find reasons why you will approach the situation with an open mind and heart. Envision them having dinner with their family!
- Relinquish Control: You cannot control any other person but yourself and you cannot control the ultimate outcome of the situation. The only thing you can control in any given situation is your own words and actions. When you limit your focus, it can soften your overall approach.
During conflict, it’s easy to lose sight of the ultimate goal: to work together to move forward so that your relationship can at least be functional and, at most, be trust-filled and respectful.
Where do we go from here?
As Scott Tillema points out in the beginning of this article, emotions play a great role in our decision-making. What starts as a conflict about work tasks can easily devolve into personal attacks. The excellent tips provided by the Master Negotiators should give you the confidence to deal with upcoming conflicts that may come your way.
In conclusion, I want to thank the Master Negotiators for contributing their best advice on how to de-escalate conflicts. Please follow them on LinkedIn to read more about them.