How to manage the stress of conflict (and stop it escalating!)

Nov 09, 2021

We all have them … arguments with a spouse or friend that escalate from a small niggle to full on shouting for no real reason, a discussion at work that ends with one person feeling bullied, side-stepped, or insignificant, or the misunderstanding that derails a project or meeting.

Nobody, including me, gets through life without the occasional argument or personal conflict.  Coming out of the pandemic it’s noticeable how many of us are more on edge, more attune to potential threat … and this includes any form of social or professional slight. 

The real kicker is that when we are stressed  the brain down-regulates many of the executive functions involved with constructive, happy human interaction – our ability to read peoples faces/actions, to empathise, to self-regulate our own actions and to effectively reason and rationalise.

It becomes a downward spiral where we become more sensitive and defensive, shutting down even more open-minded, rational or logical thinking. 

Having a plan to effectively manage ourselves difficult conversations, conflict  … or knowing what to look out for in any interaction to prevent it taking an unexpected turn can be invaluable in any relationship or workplace (even if we like to think we don't trigger or contribute to them!)

How do we stay calm and confident in the face of conflict?

Avoiding clashes completely is both extremely unlikely, and over the longer-term is likely to see resentment and stress build up anyway. 

Google probably isnt your friend here either … reaching for the phone is unlikely to help the situation(!), every situation is different, and everyone’s reactions to pressure are different.

Research suggests that one of the best tools for managing stress during conflict is AUTHENTICITY.  I know, it’s a word that is banded around a lot (too much?!) so we have probably all done a shared eye-roll.  

Being authentic builds mutual trust and respect and it creates a sense of inner strength … all of which can have a very powerful de-escalation effect on our own stress and that of others. 

Being authentic requires 4 things:

  1. Awareness: knowing and trusting yourself (feelings, thoughts, personality, ...)
  2. Taking feedback and accepting outcomes without being defensive 
  3. behaving in ways that are consistent with our own values and preferences 
  4. having honest relationships in which we chose to let both our faults and virtues be seen.  

Being authentic under pressure probably isnt the first thing on your mind... this is how

This is where following a framework in a stressful situation can be so powerful. 

 Try running through the following PILLARS OF THE STRESS RESET to help both the way you act and react to the conflict, and to understand and help anyone else involved. 

  • RECOGNISE (1)  – how are you both reacting to the stressful situation … physically, emotionally, have any of the thinking “traps” of stress crept in (making assumptions not looking at facts, catastrophising,..), behaviour (not listening, being defensive,…)  
  • RECOGNISE (2) – what is the disagreement and stress really about … is it worth it? Can you laugh at how out of hand it has become?  Is your (or their stress) really from this situation or it is related to something completely different?
  • RESTORE – how can you restore some space and balance … take a few deep breaths, ask for a couple of minutes to get some water or to take a break  to cool off.
  • REFRAME – could you look at the situation differently? What could you be contributing to the blow-up knowing how you react to stress?
  • REALIGN – how can you reflect your values or how you would like to act?
  • RELATE – what could you ask to see the situation from their point of view … to make them feel heard, understood, relevant?  Is there scope to work collaboratively to find a solution
  • RESET – What is going to be the most important outcome when you look back on this? How can redirect to work towards that

The stress response will naturally steer any signs of conflict towards defensive, threatened thinking ... battles to be won or avoided.  By applying this STRESS RESET framework, maintaining a sense of Autonomy, Connection, and Competence, hopefully the stress in these situations can be minimised and you can shift from seeing them as  battles to problems that can be solved.


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