7 Ways to Keep Your Best Thinking During Conflict

Any relationship, including work relationships, involves disagreements and conflict.

In fact, healthy leaders encourage disagreements so that the best ideas can emerge. 

The key is working through tension with productive, effective behaviors rather than destructive, ineffective behaviors. When conflict is productive, the real issue gets addressed and conversations move forward so that relationships can get stronger.  

The reality is, in the heat of the moment, it’s easier said than done to stay level-headed. People get emotionally triggered and before you know it, tension escalates and people are at a standoff. It’s the opposite of productive conflict resolution.

7 Ways to keep your best thinking during conflict  

Handling disagreements starts with staying in control of your emotional triggers. 

Maybe you can remember emotionally triggering times where you either wanted to blurt out something out that you’d later regret. Or perhaps you wanted to run away from the situation to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable conversation altogether.

Grounded in neuroscience, the following list of techniques provide 7 practical strategies to  stay calm and level-headed so you can maintain your best thinking during conflict.

1. Choose a word or phrase of who you aspire to be during the conversation

By deciding in advance how you’re going to show up, you’re more likely to actually behave in that manner. For example, before going into your next board meetin where you anticipate you’ll feel  tense, say to yourself “I choose to be curious” or “I choose to be open-minded and ask questions to understand before responding.”

Making this conscious choice is a gamechanger in keeping your best thinking online during conflict.

2. Notice you’re triggered

Our body tell us when our fight/flight/freeze response is off to the races.  

Do you notice a knot in your stomach? Sweaty palms? Your heart feels like it’s pounding out of your chest?  We all experience the fight/flight/freeze reactions in different ways. 

Knowing your triggers gives you clues that your body is getting flooded with stress hormones so you can take action sooner rather than later so you stay in control of your response.

Are you aware of your own conflict style? What about the conflict styles of those around you? This multi-blog series I wrote discusses each style in more detail. The more educated you are on this topic, the easier it becomes to stay present during challenging times. 

 3. Pause – slow things down

It’s all too easy to give into the urge to react when you’re flooded with stress hormones. Examples of slowing things down are:

  • Ask questions with curiosity to clarify where the other person is coming from
  • Ask for a break and set a time to resume the conversation later

The point of taking a pause is to keep your best thinking accessible  and to  give your stress hormones a chance to calm down.

4. Be present in your body

If you’re sitting, feel your body in the chair. If you’re standing, feel your feet firmly planted on the ground.  

Getting present will help you tap into your inner resources of curiosity and asking insightful questions. Getting present also helps you to be a good listener to hear where others are coming from.         

5. Breathe  

Paying attention to your breath will keep you anchored, so you’re more likely to respond instead of react. When you breathe out a couple seconds longer than breathing in, your relaxation response kicks in as another way to keep your best thinking available.

6. Set boundaries

Whether it’s ground rules about the parameters of the topic, setting a timeframe, or defining what behaviors are okay and what behaviors aren’t okay – boundaries provide clarity.

When people are clear about expectations, they’re more likely to bring out their best thinking to resolve the conflict.

7. Wash your hands 

When you feel triggered and your fight/flight/freeze response is about to take over your best thinking, wash your hands in cold water. Intentionally feel the water and the soap on your hands. This simple strategy re-regulates your nervous system to calm down. Sounds weird, but it works! 

When you implement the above strategies, you’re taking control of your emotional reaction during conflict so you bring out your best thinking…and that of those around you.

It’s worth putting these strategies into practice because when your emotions take over, the conflict and tension only make the problem bigger. 

Which strategy will you implement to bring out your best thinking during conflict?

As a recovering people-pleaser, I understand the struggle of releasing old patterns and the benefits of boundaries. Change is possible. 

Make the Conscious Choice to replace unhelpful behaviors with boundaries and regulation techniques, and you will elevate your leadership credibility.

Are you curious to understand how your family upbringing shapes your approach to conflict?  

Take my complimentary Workplace Family Factor® Assessment and learn how self-awareness of your family upbringing will equip you to improve how you handle conflict at work. 

About the author 

Bonnie Artman Fox HeadshotBonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT works with executive leaders who want to gain self-awareness about the impact of their words and actions and up-level their interpersonal skills. 

Drawing from decades as a psychiatric nurse and licensed family therapist, Bonnie brings a unique perspective to equip executive leaders with the roadmap to emotional intelligence that brings teams together. 

Bonnie’s leadership Turnaround coaching program has an 82% success rate in guiding leaders to replace abrasive behavior with tact, empathy, and consideration of others. The end result is a happy, healthy, and profitable workplace…sooner vs. later.