I sometimes teach courses in conflict resolution and mediate workplace disputes.

I’m a big believer in “interest based” conflict resolution. Whenever possible, I avoid power plays and a legalistic approach to rights, and cut to the bottom line of interests.

I want to know what’s really important to the parties in the dispute. What’s at stake for each of them, practically and emotionally. What would have to happen for them to let go of their anger, fear, hurt, frustration – call upon their combined creativity and resourcefulness to resolve this issue and grow personally and interpersonally.

You might think the difficulty of a mediation derives from the complexity of the issues in dispute. But that’s not my experience. I’ve found that the emotional intelligence of the parties and their ability to create psychological safety are the most factors.

This makes sense when you consider how the brain and body process conflict.

Our bodies and brains are always scanning our environment for threats to our safety. When a potential threat is identified, alerts are fast tracked to our gut and heart and the part of our brain called the amygdala, which releases a potent rush of chemicals that creates a state of high arousal.

A secondary alert is sent to our cerebral cortex (the reasoning part of the brain) which begins to investigate the threat, assess its validity and devise a reasonable plan of action (taking cues from the rest of the body and from our memory banks as input to the assessment). This is a much slower process.

In highly conflicted situations the amygdala is triggered over and over again, keeping the brain in a chemically induced state of high arousal and interfering with the cerebral cortex’s ability to do its work. This is sometimes called the “amygdala hijack”.

When people who work closely together experience a series of conflicts over time, they may develop a hair trigger when it comes to reacting to perceived threats or slights. Their memory bank of past offences may skew the cerebral cortex’s ability to accurately evaluate new incidents.

When I first started teaching courses in conflict resolution and mediating disputes in organizations, I used to focus on the dispute resolution process, how to work through an issue, what to say, what to do. But these days, I put most of my focus on the emotional side of the equation.

From my perspective, the foundational skills in resolving conflict are:

1. Self awareness: Are you aware of your own emotions? What you are feeling. What’s triggering those feelings. How those feelings are driving your actions. How the words you and your partner are using to describe the conflict may be setting off amygdala hijacks in your brain, making it harder for you to be creative and resourceful and hopeful.

2. Empathy: Are you aware of your partner’s emotions? What they are feeling. What’s triggering those feelings. How those feelings are driving their actions. How the words you and your partner are using to describe the conflict may be setting off amygdala hijacks in their brain, making it harder for them to be creative and resourceful and hopeful.

3. Self management. Do you recognize when you are in the grip of an amygdala hijack and can you pull yourself back from the brink to a more resourceful state? Do you recognize when your partner is in the grip of an amygdala hijack and can you help them pull back from the brink to a more resourceful state? Can you predict the triggers that might push one or both of you over the edge, to avoid those triggers and find alternate ways to express yourself?

These are the skills that enable the parties in a dispute to create a psychologically safe space. This psychological safety encourages everyone to bring their creativity, resourcefulness, tenacity, resilience to the table. And even the most complex and challenges conflicts usually yield under these conditions.

I’m convinced that emotional intelligence is the key managing the conflicts that naturally arise in any workplace, so they become a source of positive change and learning. Emotional intelligence is the key to all interpersonal work (leadership, communications, customer relations, sales).

I’m intrigued by new research about the way the body and brain create and process emotions. Increasingly curious about the most effective ways to help individuals and teams become more skilled at applying emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Self awareness, empathy and self management are the foundation. But self management isn’t just about repressing the negative. It’s about being able to skillfully express a whole range of emotions. The ability to express our emotions in a nuanced, skillful way is what builds trust, penetrates defensive shields, creates authentic connection.

Lately, a quote from the movie Love Actually keeps playing in my head. It’s by Emma Thompson’s character Karen, when her husband asks about the Joni Mitchell CD she’s listening to: “Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.”

I think the art (music, drama, movement) have a lot to teach us about the skillful expression of emotions. Even in the workplace from which they have been largely excluded.

This summer I did a play writing course with contemporary dance/theatre artist Meagan O’Shea of StandUpDance. We used movement improvisation as our method. As a novice it triggered my amygdala but good. Meagan has created a beautiful piece of work with her solo show, The Atomic Weight of Happiness. It captured my imagination and prompted me to invite her to collaborate with me on creating an exploratory workshop.

You’ll hear more on this in the coming months. Stay tuned.

Three morals in this blog post:

1. The first rule of managing conflict is to create psychological safety.
2. Self awareness, empathy and self management are the skills that make this possible.
3. The arts have a lot to teach us about skillful emotional expression.

Yours with creativity and imagination,
Darlene

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