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Jim Ice, Ed.D. -
It is not how we act in daily interactions but how we handle
conflict that defines us - to our customers, our co-workers and our
boss. Although we would love to believe it is the service and
cooperation rendered to others each day that shapes their
perceptions of us, we are most remembered by how we handle the
stress and anxiety of conflict.
When we work with others, we will experience conflict. There
will be times in your work life when tensions and anxieties will
run high and the patience will grow thin. Customers will demand
immediate resolution to issues you didn't know existed. Co-workers
will disagree with your plan of action and may express frustrations
with a raised voice or a dismissive response. Although we would
like to avoid conflict when possible, we also must learn how to
successfully manage a conflict toward an effective resolution.
Understanding how to relieve the pressure of difficult situations
is a critical skill for anyone who works with the public,
customers, suppliers or internal teams.
The experience of conflict
First, let's to take a minute to understand what causes
conflict. Conflict is the perceived clash of interests. The
conditions for conflict occur when an individual or group believes
that the priorities, needs or goals of another will interfere with
their own desires or plans. This perceived disruption of
expectations can infuse stress into the situation.
We have all experienced feelings of anxiety and frustration when
something stands in the way of us achieving our goals. The
disruption could be as simple as unexpected traffic that threatens
our ability to make a flight or as complex as the internal politics
and jockeying sometimes involved in acquiring resources needed for
your team's success. Disruption of our expectations makes us
uncomfortable, increases the pressure and raises situational
anxiety. Like shaking a can of soda, this pressure can prompt an
explosion. This makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to
clean up the mess and resolve the initial problem. And allowing
this pressure to go unchecked may result in dramatic conclusions,
including damaged relationships, loss of customers or even physical
Reactions to conflict: violence or silence
Whenever we don't feel safe, our senses are heightened. When we
encounter a risk situation, we prepare to defend ourselves or
escape the situation. This "fight or flight" behavior is innate and
designed to protect us in situations where we perceive
Although we typically think of dangerous situations as being
threatening to our physical bodies, we react the exact same way
when a disruption occurs that threatens to interfere with our
expectation for obtaining our goals. These disruptions may be
structural (e.g., policy changes or a changing project timeline) or
interpersonal (e.g., disagreements on next steps or conflicting
role accountabilities.) Whatever the source, this disruption brings
with it the risk of our objectives being interrupted.
Some situations may prompt individuals to "check out" of the
situation, as opposed to the fight or flight response. Although
they remain physically present, they no longer actively participate
in conversations. This "silence" behavior substitutes for the
flight response when it is impossible or inappropriate to leave.
Alternatively, some disruptions many illicit a fight response that
is demonstrated by verbal or physical "violence."
In the New York Times best seller "Crucial Conversations: Tools
for talking when stakes are high," the authors describe the
violence and silence behaviors that occur when people feel "unsafe"
within a discussion. They outline the following behaviors:
Controlling - cutting off; overstating facts; absolutes
Labeling of people and/or ideas - generalize; stereotype
Verbal attacking - belittling; threatening; aggressive attempts
to convince, control, compel
Physical attacking - physical threats and/or actions
Ignoring or discounting - the contribution and/or perspective of
Withholding information - as a means to avoid potential
problems, including: masking of true opinions; avoiding any
sensitive topics, withdrawing or misrepresenting exiting
Ensuring safe and productive engagements
The violence or silence behaviors may be demonstrated in a
variety of ways. But when you detect them, it may mean that the one
demonstrating the behavior no longer recognizes the situation as
"safe" - safe for a positive exchange of information or moving
forward with issue resolution.
Nothing kills a positive discussion like a fear of not being
heard, understood or respected. When someone does not feel safe to
be candid, or if they feel others involved in the interaction do
not have their best interest in mind, even well-intended comments
can be misunderstood and raise tensions and disruption. When we
feel we are involved in a one-sided discussion or that our
perspective is not respected, the content of the discussion no
longer matters; it is now all about the emotions associated with
feeling disrespected. Small matters can explode when one or both
parties feel as if the other is not giving them the respect they
Consider a time when you had a difficult experience as a
customer, perhaps at your favorite restaurant. Maybe your waiter
seemed to be distracted while taking your order and asked you
multiple times to repeat your order. There is nothing difficult
about repeating your order. But if the waiter gave the appearance
of not respecting you as a customer, it can be frustrating.
Suddenly it's not about the logistics of the order; it escalates to
how you feel you are being treated. As a result, your temper can
flare (violence reaction) or you determine to reduce their tip
(silence reaction.) When working with customers, teammates or
others within your work environment, it is critical to consider not
only what you are trying to accomplish but how the interaction is
Creating a safe environment
The first de-escalation technique you must learn is how to
create, or restore, safety - both physical and psychological - in
each interaction. Once safety is established, the individuals in
conflict can move onto the important work of generating
alternatives and resolving open issues. Until safety is
assured, individuals will naturally focus more attention on
defense, violence or silence - versus problem solving.
The book's authors suggest there are two conditions required for
establishing an environment that is safe for conflict resolution to
take place: establishing a mutual purpose and a mutual respect.
Mutual Purpose - When the parties involved agree
on the purpose for their interaction, they will be more willing to
risk trust and share with each other. If one or more participants
in the interaction feels that there is not agreement on common
purpose, they will tend to act in ways to protect themselves.
Although the goals for the interaction may be different for each
participant, a safe environment is established when all parties
believe that they and their objectives are understood and
respected. This allows them to move forward toward meeting
Establishing this mutual purpose is as simple as asking each
participant to state what they hope to achieve within the
interaction. When all participants understand the objectives of
each other, the conditions for collaboration exist. This simple,
yet critical step, is often overlooked or assumed.
Mutual Respect - The second condition required to
assure a safe environment is mutual respect. This condition
is a bit harder to achieve than mutual purpose because it is often
an implied, rather than overt, condition. We can verbally describe
our goals for an interaction, but we typically do not describe our
level of respect for each other. Although respect for the opinion
of another is demonstrated, in part, by what we say, it is also
gathered based on the perception of how I feel you treat me. This
is why the distracted waiter can cause frustration, or why a patron
that belittles the wait staff can cause hard feelings. Dignity is
important to us, and when we feel our dignity is challenged, we
feel unsafe - prompting violent or silent behaviors.
To ensure mutual respect requires each party to commit to the
"golden rule" of treating others as they would like to be treated.
The stress associated with conflict situations can cause
individuals to dispense with the common courtesies of treating
others with the respect they deserve as a fellow human being. Only
when the dignity of mutual respect is restored can the interactions
focus on productively solving problems.
Treating others with respect by acknowledging their
perspectives, even when we do not agree with them, is important to
productive discourse. Unfortunately, too many times in our rush to
express our perspective, we imply the perspective of others adds no
value - and therefore, we insult the dignity of another. This is
one reason our mothers taught us not to talk about politics or
religion at the dinner table; these are discussions that can easily
offend and polarize. Effectively resolving conflict requires us to
identify effective ways to engage in discourse - and even challenge
ideas - while maintaining mutual respect.
The customer service environment provides an illustration of the
importance of building mutual respect. When a customer service
agent acknowledges the value of his customers' perspective and the
validity of their concerns, the tension of the situation is
released. This is really the meaning of the old saying, "The
customer is always right." Actually, they are not always
"technically" right, but they always have the right to their
opinion and to be treated fairly regardless of their issue or
Here are a few demonstrations of respect: "I understand you are
frustrated because you feel that your concerns are not being met. I
can see your point and why this is so important to you."
It is also OK to ask for the same respect in return. For
example, "Please understand that I will do my best to assist you
within the constraints of the situation" or "I also have concerns
about the quality of our project output and how my work will be
The best way to receive respect is to demonstrate respect!
The role of forgiveness
"To Forgive is Divine." This proverb suggests the second
de-escalation technique. When someone is under stress, they may act
in ways they would not normally react. Stress may cause them to be
short, curt, abrasive or even mean. In the context of customer
service, this behavior is all too common. You have a choice. Do you
escalate the pressure, or do you begin to de-escalate the tension
with your reaction? In order to provide excellent customer service
or to take a leadership in de-escalating a tense situation, we must
be willing to not take offense, to understand the
stress driving their behavior and empathize with them. In other
words, to not respond in kind but rather forgive their
The following are steps you may take to de-escalate a situation
when dealing with someone under stress:
If your ultimate goal is problem resolution, often the best
course of action when offended is to forgive and return the focus
to the problem at hand. However, you should never allow yourself to
be in a situation where things have escalated to the point where
you feel at physical or emotional risk. When this occurs, leave the
situation immediately and seek immediate assistance. If this takes
place at work, remember to report the situation to your manager
immediately. When forgiveness is warranted, it may help you to
remember that when under stress, some people lash out, even at
those who are trying to help them because they are seeking to blame
someone for the situation. And let's be honest; some people are
just naturally brusque, and stress makes it worse. In these
situations, we must fight our natural tendency to be offended and
react negatively, modeling the exact same aggressive behavior to
which we are reacting.
A template for de-escalation
Once you have ensured a safe environment and attempted not to
mirror the anxiety behaviors of others - and decided to take action
to first reduce the tension- here are a few practical tips to
- Select a location that allows discussion without distraction.
Step out of main traffic flow. Never limit egress, such as backing
people into a corner or standing between them and the exit.
- Angle yourself at 45 degrees to facilitate discussion. Stand
near, but not too close to, them. Let them dictate distance. Never
turn your back to them in any situation. Walk beside and not in
front. Use your words or hands to point the way.
- Establish eye contact (demonstrates focus and interest) without
offending. Try to hold your discussion at eye level (not talking
down or up to them.) Provide a "serious smile." Demonstrate a
positive but not happy attitude.
- Actively listen. Try not to interrupt and reflect back your
understanding of their concerns, needs, priorities and goals.
- Remember that meaning is communicated through tone and body
language as well as words, so be aware of your message
- Express empathy with their frustration and acknowledge their
perspective. Demonstrate your interest in helping
both of you achieve your interests.
- Request the same respect you are giving them in the
- Explore solution alternatives. Demonstrate the willingness to
consider alternatives. Ask them to help generate solutions.
- Once you have a plan for resolution, seek verbal confirmation
of their agreement to try the selected alternative(s). Define a
method to review results to ensure it is meeting defined
These techniques may not de-escalate every situation you may
face, but they should help you better understand the sources of the
tension so you can together define a plan for resolution - or at
least suspension - in order to address the underlying
About the Author: Ice serves as the Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Carlow University. For more than 30 years, he’s served as an advisor to global business leaders on issues of talent strategy, workforce alignment, strategic planning, employee engagement, change leadership, building learning organizations and equipping leaders for success.
Contact: Jim Ice, Ed.D.