Have you ever found yourself incredulous at how quickly your conversation with someone has deteriorated and the tension is mounting, your and their emotions are flying and you are flummoxed as to how you got there? It’s like being on an escalator that you can’t get off of, nor turn around and go down, and you are stuck riding to the top in order to reverse course.
Around the world, the polarization is palpable and recently there seems to be incredibly built-up tension and eruption of conflict, as seen in the news, heard on the radio, and debated on social media. It’s happening globally across borders and in our own backyards, amongst multiple political, secular, and religious spectra, between community members and those who serve them, and with neighbors next door and acquaintances online. While not seen nor reported as publicly as these instances, it may also be happening at your workplace, in meetings, at the cafeteria or around the water cooler, on your project team, with a co-worker or with a boss or direct report.
Whether you are an involved party who has gotten hooked into ongoing discussions, an impacted team member on a project or in a department trying to minimize the damage, or simply an observer of others who are actively engaged, with wonderment for what to do, how do you get off the “escalator”?
Here are five steps you can simply take to slow down conflicts and avoid escalation.
1) Assume You Are Making an Assumption about Something
Most of the time when we are in the midst of a misunderstanding, we have gotten ourselves on a track of assumptions. Because our brains are quick at “reading” the external data, we are also quickly filtering unconsciously, and making a conclusion, which can easily lead us down a wrong path in our thinking. Likely we have ascribed a negative intention to someone’s words or actions that was not there; we have misheard and then misinterpreted what someone actually said and meant; or maybe we have been flooded by our emotions and developed our own story about what is happening. And once in our own “understanding,” we don’t stop to find out what is real and what is in our imagination. A radical course is to assume you are making an assumption somewhere, stop yourself from jumping to conclusions, and imagine another side to the story or even better, ask the person questions for clarity and understanding.
2) Try the Ten Second Timeout
Every time you sense your pulse speed up and start to feel something in your body indicating anxiety, fear or anger, give yourself a moment in your reaction to calm down before engaging, speaking, writing back, or posting. Grandma was right to say, “Count to 10,” as that is sufficient time to give the executive function in your brain (the part that follows reason and logic) a chance to come back from the hijack by your amygdala (the ancient, reptilian part of our brain that reacts to protect us). While we have evolved as a species, our brain senses emotional pressure as if we are in the way of an oncoming herd of bison and in the face of physical harm.
3) Take a Break for Safety’s Sake
You have seen the signs on highways for drivers who may have been on the road a long time and at risk of falling asleep at the wheel. I suggest the same mantra for emotional safety whether you are involved in tense discussions with others or able to make a suggestion to those who are engaged as such. There comes a point where it feels like things are accelerating or spinning with no resolution in sight. At either juncture, this is a good moment to stop the conversation for a good while. Compared to the Ten Second Timeout, this is a stronger way of letting the brain return to a more rational space, gives all parties time to release the tension and take stock, perhaps, of what is at the core of the situation and possible ways to solve it.
4) Agree to Disagree
One of the simplest things we can do when we don’t need to come to agreement on something specific is to recognize that you won’t see “eye to eye” and agree to disagree on the subject at hand. For many of the thoughts and ideas we are expressing, we don’t need to create consensus and have the same perspective. We can simply shift that topic to the side as something where there is a difference of opinion and move on to finding common ground again.
5) Remember that We Are All Human and More Alike than Different
Last, but certainly not least, and most importantly of all, we must remember that we are more similar to the people we disagree with or find ourselves in conflict, than we are different. Our outlooks, perspectives, or opinions may not align, but at the core, our DNA says otherwise, and we almost always live by the same human values: we want to belong, we want to be recognized for our positive contributions; we want to live a healthy and happy life, and we want to be loved. If every person took a moment before succumbing to fear and lambasting, maligning, taking offense, or behaving meanly toward another, and remembered that this same person is a sibling like you are, a child or parent or both, a community member, a worker, a follower of faith or science or both, perhaps we could give the benefit of the doubt, show compassion, and feel a kinder sentiment towards that person such as empathy, sympathy or even pity. Adapting to look at where you both connect, at the human level, can take the heat off and re-direct to a new place of understanding.
If you have experienced tensions recently or noticed them going on around you and want to share your viewpoints, even if in contrast to what I’ve contributed here, please comment. I’m all ears!