Do you run in the other direction when you see a certain neighbor approaching you on the street? Are you afraid that your anger will get the best of you when you’re forced to deal with a particular colleague so you avoid her altogether? Going out of your way to avoid conflict won’t make the situation any better. In fact, it can create an endless source of negativity in both your personal and professional life.

Bottom Line Personal asked business psychiatrist, conflict coach and negotiation trainer Mark Goulston, MD, for his best suggestions on how to deal with conflict…

Who Do You Avoid…and Why?

First, determine who you avoid and what those people do that makes you want to avoid them…

Identify the people you want to engage with…and those you don’t. Take a piece of paper, and draw a vertical line down the middle. On the right side, list all the people you look forward to seeing and/or enjoy talking to. On the left side, list the people you avoid—just writing down their names may cause a knot in your stomach.

Thank all the people in the right column. Tell them what they mean to you and why. You could do this in person or by video chat—both are more personal than a phone call. We often fail to acknowledge the people we care about and who care about us because we’re so busy dealing with the upset caused by the people in the left column.

Identify what the people in the left column have in common. Maybe they frustrate you, provoke you or outrage you, perhaps by yelling, screaming, whining, blaming others for problems or making excuses for their own shortcomings. Conversations with these people often turn into arguments.

These conflicts trigger the outrage-enrage bifurcate. They highjack your amygdala, the part of the brain that detects threats and activates emotional responses. When you’re outraged, you’re appalled by their behavior…and this can quickly cross over into becoming enraged. That’s when your amygdala becomes overloaded, which pushes you into the fight, flight or freeze mode and away from being able to think.

Unless you can exorcize these people from your life—and that typically is not the case—just thinking about interacting with them can cause you to start catastrophizing. But instead of panicking or avoiding them altogether, there are ways to beat them at their own game…

7 Steps to Handling Conflict

  1. Look at the list of people you try to avoid. Remind yourself of who they are so you are prepared when you see them the next time.
  2. Don’t expect them to act differently. It would be a pleasant surprise if one does, but don’t count on it.
  3. Make a conscious effort to hold part of yourself back. When he/she tries to provoke you, don’t fully engage with him. Don’t take the bait or put any energy into suppressing your rage.
  4. Instead, look him straight in the eye when he is talking…but say nothing.
  5. After he is done talking, don’t respond for three to five seconds. This lets him know that you have not been provoked. And by taking this pause, you will be able to respond with poise.
  6. Ask him to repeat himself. Say, “Could you please repeat everything you just said? It sounded very important, but I got distracted and missed it. Better yet, can you say it back to me slowly so I can write it down?” This calm, measured response will throw your antagonist off his game. If he insults you for not paying attention, agree with him—“I might be stupid for not paying attention, but it did seem important. So if it is something you want to tell me, please repeat it slowly, so I can write it down.” Now watch him get uncomfortable—you haven’t responded the way he wants or expects you to. You’ve slowed him down…he likely won’t know what to do. He even might get frustrated or more agitated because you didn’t take the bait.
  7. End the encounter. If he is so caught off-guard that he can’t repeat himself, end the encounter with, “Well, it did seem important, so if you ever want to run it by me, please call me.” If he does repeat himself louder and more aggressively, pause and look downward for a few seconds. Then lift your head and look him in the eye again and calmly but assertively say, “Now, you’ve made it even more difficult for me to focus on what you’re saying. Let’s stop here, and if it is important, you can contact me at a later time.”

Related Articles