Conflict: Flight or Fight?

One minute you’re working calmly in a group, and the next minute people raise their voices. The tension in the room becomes palpable, and someone storms out. Has this ever happened to you? How are you supposed to get your work done in that environment? Dealing with conflict is a challenge, but you CAN learn the skills you need to slow down and cool down in the moment.

handling conflict

In this article, we help you manage your first responses to conflict and and feel like you are under control from the moment a disagreement arises. The more prepared you are, the better your outcome will be!

Conflict that seems to come out of nowhere is often caused by a hot button–a frustrating or irritating behavior or situation that causes you to overreact. This could be something small, like someone’s tone of voice, offensive body language, or an interruption. Anything that puts you into fight-or-flight mode creates conflict.

Hot buttons can also escalate a calm discussion into a heated personal conflict. Remember, in fight-or-flight mode, you have less control over your emotions and the situation. Your attitude is more likely to be about proving the other person wrong, silencing her, shifting blame away from yourself, and “winning”–NOT about finding the best solution.

So how do you manage your own responses when you’re flooded with emotion? When you feel the blood rushing to your face, try these techniques:

Monitor your reactions.

Take a step back from the situation to observe your own reactions. Don’t let yourself be caught up in negative emotions for too long. Reframe the situation, and be open to alternative explanations for how the conflict arose.

Does someone feel attacked, ignored, or otherwise disrespected? Are you contributing to those feelings? Assigning blame should NOT be the priority: addressing the issues in a productive manner should.

You can also shift your focus away from the conflict, which tends to help you push aside negative thoughts and feelings. At all times, stay flexible and be ready to adapt to changes in the situation. It’s when you take a moment to evaluate your own reactions that you might see a solution you wouldn’t have seen before.

Show respect.

The positive emotions and thoughts associated with respect help you stay involved in the conflict in a productive way. In order to communicate your respect for someone,use your words and body language to stay positive and engaged. Focus on shared goals and the other party’s needs and interests.

Use VALUED, a model designed by the Canadian Human Rights Commission:

Validate. Let the other person know that have listened and understood: “I hear what you’re saying, Amy. You feel like my lack of communication caused you to misinterpret the lab results, and now you are anxious about talking to the client.”

Ask open-ended questions. Ask for elaboration if there is a disagreement: “What could I have done differently in that situation that would have helped us avoid this misunderstanding?”

Listen to test assumptions. Do not interrupt or pose new questions before the other person has spoken.

Uncover interests. Understand the other person’s motivations, talents, and perspective: “Can you talk more about why this mistake is so troubling to you?”

Explore options. Take the time to consider the pros and cons of every suggestion: “Let’s talk about all the different ways we could approach this.”

Decide on solutions. Involve everyone in this process: “Can we make a decision about how we will solve it for now, and how we will approach this problem in the future?”

Use constructive language.

Express your own feelings and perspective while acknowledging and validating the other party’s feelings and perspective. If you’re having trouble using positive and constructive language, consider these five relational concerns, which all people respond to:

  • Appreciation: Acknowledge others. Address their ideas, even if you disagree.
  • Affirmation: Build connections. Remember the value of having another set of eyes on the problem.
  • Autonomy. Everyone has the right to make their own decisions. Do not blame others for their opinions.
  • Status: Acknowledge the other person’s skills and talents. Everyone should feel valued for their abilities.
  • Role: Define the importance of each job. Allow everyone to do his or her job.

Slow down.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to create some space. Deal with the issue later–after you have cooled down. If you know the next words out of your mouth are going to be accusatory, defensive, or negative, your best bet might be to delay responding.

However, this does not mean to ignore or forget about the conflict! You will need to come back and engage in it later. Slowing down is not the same as giving in, and you cannot reach a healthy compromise unless everyone’s voice is heard. If you yield in order to avoid a conflict, you will only create a new set of problems–and it may not even make the original conflict go away!

Cultivate positive emotions.

Ground yourself with your own sources of pride, gratitude, and peace. Think about how your skills and experience have contributed positively to the environment in the past, even if you feel bad about what’s happening now. Be grateful that you have the opportunity to be a part of such an important service–making animals healthy–and that you are being given a chance to develop your conflict competence.


Developing conflict competence is difficult, but very rewarding. By understanding the mechanics of conflict, learning strategies to deal with it, and recognizing your own reactions to it, you will be better equipped to avoid the hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and poor solutions that can result from conflict. And, any time you engage in a conflict, remember the possible benefits: innovation, education, stronger teams–and, perhaps best of all, a better shot at dealing with the next conflict in a positive way!

For more information about this and other training Shawn can provide to your team onsite, call Erin Hart at 888-759-7191 or email her.



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