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People are behaving badly. At least, that’s what I think most times I watch the evening news. Scathing insults are recklessly flung about; people are easily agitated; random acts of kindness and good manners seem to be the exception rather than the rule. This kind of behavior engenders unnecessary conflict. Of course, even without bad behavior, interpersonal conflict is a fact of everyday life. While some people act in ways to escalate conflict, others are so distressed by it they spend most of their time avoiding it, sometimes at the cost of a relationship.

But conflict is not always a bad thing. I often do an exercise when teaching mediation or communication skills. I ask everyone to say the first word that comes to mind when thinking about conflict. People usually throw out words such as “fight,” “anger,” “frustration,” “war.” Rarely does anyone think of positive words like “change,” “healing,” or “resolution.” Yet, conflict can be a constructive experience, an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a situation or a person. It can also be the impetus for growth and change. If conflict is approached constructively, it can strengthen rather than weaken a relationship.

Clearly, mediation is a great tool for addressing disagreements. But what about preventing interpersonal conflict from intensifying in the first place? The strategies mediators use to de-escalate tension during a session can easily be adapted for use by anyone in any situation. It just takes practice. Here are a few of those strategies.

Choose your time

Conflict is ideally addressed when everyone is calm (often easier said than done). If possible, choose a good time and place to broach a difficult subject. While this makes good common sense, it turns out it’s also supported by scientific research regarding how our brains function. Stress is processed in the brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotions and triggers fight or flight. When the limbic system is activated, the cerebral cortex is shut down. The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for rational, high-order thinking and impulse control. So, stressful conflict = limbic system fight, flight or flood of emotions; calm conflict = neocortex rational thinking. Starting to make sense? By choosing to approach conflict at a less stressful time, there’s a much greater chance that the conversation will be guided by reason rather than emotion.

Listen, Listen, Listen

Adults spend 45% of their time listening. Listening, however, is not the same as hearing. Listening to someone involves 5 stages: receiving, understanding, evaluating, remembering, and responding. In short, to really listen to someone, it’s necessary to think about what they say and respond accordingly. Many of you are probably familiar with the term “active listening.” Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to provide feedback to the speaker regarding what he or she hears. In its simplest form, the listener repeats back what the speaker has said. Sounds easy, right? In practice, not so much. The easy part is repeating what was said. The challenge comes in refraining from adding some kind of judgement. When a judgement is added, things can go haywire. Try an experiment next time you’re interacting with someone who is upset. Do nothing but practice reflective listening and observe the effect on the speaker. You’ll be amazed by how something so simple can be so powerful.

Improve your EQ

The book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman was first published in 1995. Emotional intelligence (or emotional quotient) is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It means being heart smart, not book smart – kind of like having a good bedside manner. The basic tenants of good EQ are: (1) Self-awareness – recognizing your emotions; (2) Self-regulation – regulating your emotions; (3) Motivation – the willingness to change; being positive even when emotions are negative; (4) Social awareness/empathy – recognizing the feelings of others and (5) Resolving conflicts and handling relationships well. One of the fascinating things about EQ is that it matters just as much as IQ does for success. If you are good with people, you don’t have to be brilliant to flourish in life.

Don’t think you have that good bedside manner? That’s okay. Unlike IQ, EQ can be improved. If you do an internet search for “EQ tests,” you will find all kinds of tools to help you recognize your emotional triggers and learn how to improve your EQ. There are even tests to help you read other’s facial expressions better.

The above techniques represent just a few of the tools for improving communication. There are many more that I teach in my Conflict Resolution Trainings. If everyone made the effort to use such tools when approaching disagreements, perhaps the evening news would be a little less distressing.