Managing High Emotions in Conflict By Dionne Dury

October 22nd, 2020

This was the fourth topic in our series of online webinars recently; The Art & Science of Conflict Resolution. We chose this topic because emotions play a central part in escalating conflict and are extremely important in its resolution. We received great feedback from those who were able to attend this session and I wanted to share some of the takeaways on this fascinating topic. You can view the recording below.

What are emotions and why do we find them difficult?

Emotions are an intrinsic part of being human; some of us find it easier to either hide or express our emotions than others and we react and respond in very different ways. Why is that and what part do emotions play in conflict escalation or de-escalation?

There are many different definitions and psychological theories relating to emotions but one that is simple and easy to understand defines an emotion as “a complex psychological state made up of three distinct components; a subjective experience, a physiological response and a behavioural response”.

Whilst we all experience similar emotions such as anger, sadness, happiness etc. the theory is that our subjective experience of these can differ greatly e.g. from mild annoyance / frustration to raging anger.

Our bodies also respond physiologically depending on what emotion(s) we experience which in turn, impact our behaviour.

How do emotions impact on conflict?

In conflict situations emotions will invariably be running high and there would be no conflict in the absence of emotion. This is certainly true when we meet with people when carrying out mediations or conflict coaching and who may be feeling a range of emotions such as anger or fear. For example, individuals:

  • might have been off sick with a period with stress related ill-health and returning to work for the first time;
  • been ruminating about a conflict situation;
  • feeling that their side of things has not been properly heard;
  • be concerned about what peers and colleagues might know / have been told;
  • be concerned about their future employment and financial security.

The neuroscience tells us that when we are in a heightened state of stress / anxiety, this triggers our fight or flight response in the amygdala part of our brain which then secretes cortisol. Increased levels of cortisol impacts our decision making, assessment of risk, rational cognition, focus and working memory. We are also likely to perceive everything as a threat.

This is the amygdala highjack! Once this happens our pre-frontal cortex shuts down and we will struggle to see things rationally or from another person’s perspective; all things that are key to enabling conflict resolution. In addition, we tend to react and respond in potentially unhelpful ways so that the conflict escalates.

Studies have shown that when someone is experiencing high emotion it can also create a physical reaction in the other through mirror neurons, having the potential to create a cycle where the other person also reacts unhelpfully creating further escalation.

This is where informal conflict resolution can play such a vital role. An independent neutral third party not being in a heightened emotional state can help to create a safe calm space in which high emotions can be released or expressed (a very important part of the informal conflict resolution process), and enabling the parties to a less heightened emotional state where the logical part of the brain can consider options and possibilities for resolution.

Other things to help resolve conflict?

Allowing the parties to express their emotions is a fundamental part of the informal conflict resolution process. When this does happen it is often a pivotal moment as this is when the emotional impact of a situation or behaviour becomes clear and better understood by the other person. Again, the neuroscience tells us that if someone feels that their emotional state has been understood, they will find it much easier to let go of the strong emotion(s) that they are experiencing. This is where the skills that mediators use such as reframing and empathetic listening, can be key in helping parties to move forward.

I was interested to learn, when preparing for this webinar, about the refractory state. This is where a person is experiencing a strong emotion e.g. anger and they are unable, whilst in that state, to take in any new information. On average, a refractory state last around 20 minutes. In a recent mediation I was involved in a party had apologised to the other after learning of the impact that his behaviour had had. However, that apology was not heard initially by the other party who, at the time, was still upset and hurt by the way that she perceived her colleague to have behaved towards her in front of her colleagues. The apology was restated later in the joint session and was acknowledged and accepted the second time. Having reflected on this, it is likely that the party was in a refractory state when the initial apology was made.

Conflict coaching/conflict skills development

The good news is that whilst we may not be able to manage our emotions, we can learn to manage our reactions and responses and the behaviours that follow. Much of the conflict coaching work and training that we do enables individuals to better understand what behaviours are helpful or unhelpful and their hot buttons; i.e. what gets the amygdala highjacked. It can also help individuals to better understand why the other person maybe acting in the way they are and the differences between them; rather than jumping to unhelpful assumptions. Coaching can then help clients identify any skills development and an action plan to support them to change behaviours.

Whilst I am not a psychologist or a scientist and in no way profess to be an expert on the way in which our brains work; it is both fascinating and useful to understand some of the physiological ways that we are impacted as a result of experiencing strong emotions. In a global pandemic where the world around us is so uncertain, we have all been impacted emotionally. Helping to understand this and ways that can help de-escalate conflict, can only be a positive one.

If you have a situation that requires mediation or simply would like some more information about any of our services, please contact us [email protected] or 08000 489235.

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