Conflict is an inevitable fact of our work lives. While it is almost always uncomfortable, it is not always deleterious. In fact, in recent years a deluge of articles and books has discussed using conflict to spark innovation. For conflict to be constructive, however, the intent must be to improve or repair rather than assert power, control or influence.
Constructive conflict is about putting the problem in front of us, versus putting the problem between us.
Stirring conflict for conflict’s sake under the guise of trying to “fire people up” is really just an excuse for bullying, intimidation and other bad behavior. It is a failure to understand the key element that must be present for constructive conflict to succeed: psychological safety. In fact, a two-year study on performance by Google found that psychological safety was by far the most important element in creating and maintaining high-performing teams.
How Do You Know Conflict Is Constructive?
A person in a conflict situation should ask themselves this:
- How do I know if this conflict is constructive and built on psychological safety?
- If this isn’t constructive or safe, how can I de-escalate the conflict?
The answer to the first question is straightforward: Listen to your gut. Constructive conflict will feel like hard work, but it shouldn’t feel like suffering. Those engaged in constructive conflict don’t:
Four Ways to De-escalate
Let’s turn to the second question. If you find yourself on the receiving end of unconstructive conflict and, as tensions rise, you feel shamed, blamed, bullied or manipulated, here are ways to de-escalate the situation.
1. Check Yourself
De-escalate yourself first! Be aware of your own body, breathing and voice. We are designed to mirror one another’s body language. It is one of our evolutionary ways of connecting to one another. In conflict, we tend to close our posture (arm or legs crossed, turned or pulled away, or towering over) and raise our voice. Slow your breathing. This will help you and the person you’re with calm the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-or-flight” response). Holding an open posture and neutral tone can signal them to respond in kind. Open your arms, relaxed to your sides, with minimal gestures. Turn toward the other person, maintaining natural eye contact. Speak in an even, low tone.
2. Reflect Their Feeling While Disengaging From a Power Struggle
Even when agreement is out of the question or the behavior attached to the conflict is not constructive, reflecting how the person is feeling in the moment de-escalates tension. Useful phrases include:
“I can hear that you are frustrated right now and that is a bad feeling.”
“This sounds really difficult for you.”
“I can understand that ________ leaves you feeling angry.”
(Note: This does not require you to agree with the person’s position, only that you can understand how they are feeling in the moment.)
3. Know and Advocate for Your Boundaries
State your limits and rules in a firm and respectful tone:
“I understand that you are angry, but it is not OK for you to [raise your voice/name-call].”
4. Know When to Disengage
Finally, there are no prizes for being the last dog in the fight. If a person is unable or unwilling to self-soothe and de-escalate their behavior, it is best to disengage — while leaving the door open to re-engage at a later time:
“I want to understand this better and come to a consensus, let’s continue this conversation tomorrow when things can be more relaxed.”
Above all, know that it is always your right to keep yourself safe — emotionally and physically. If de-escalation is not working, trust your instincts.
Walk away and seek support.
Read More on Attorney at Work
“How to Calm an Angry Client in 90 Seconds or Less” by Doug Noll
“Survival Skills for Lawyers: Letting Go of Anger” by Link Christin
“Attorney Safety: An Interview with Stephen Kelson” by Ruth Carter
“Purge Toxic Clients From Your Practice” by Mike O’Horo