When Facing Conflict—Shut up or Blowup?

When Facing Conflict—Shut up or Blowup?

When conversations get heated, or start to derail, it is easily to feel like you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Most human beings, when cornered by a situation or person—favor two options. They shut up, or they blow up.

Why is that?

When confronted by something uncomfortable or frightening—why do so many lash out or hide?

There is actually a lot of research on the topic.

The above scenario can be boiled down to a human response called, fight or flight.

Fight or flight is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events, attacks, or threats to survival.

Your automatic nervous system (a control system that acts unconsciously) is to thank for this.

When threatened, your body gets ready to fight or run away—and a lot of physical things happen at that moment.

Your blood pressure and heart rate increase, allowing for an increased blood flow to your muscles. Even your blood sugar and fat levels rise—all providing more energy to your body. 

Your blood clotting function speeds up and your muscles tense in order to provide the maximum amount of speed and strength.

If you are really feeling a threat, your body will give you the power you need to either lean into that fight or run quickly away from it.

It is hardwired into who we are.

But what does that have to do with difficult conversations?

We talk a lot in Ember Learning about how difficult conversations involve risk. They involve negative emotions and for sure a sense of uncertainty. We don’t know where the conversation could go, or how it might affect us.

Our bodies or actual lives may not be at risk, but the same physical response occurs.

When we feel insecure or threatened by what is being talked about, even just overwhelmed—our tendency is to want out of the conversation. And if we don’t run, we go on the defense and start a verbal fight.

In a dangerous situation, or when your life is at risk—fight or flight is an important function. In a difficult conversation, it only makes things worse.

During a hard conversation, it is important for us to learn how to manage our emotions and even physical response. We need to stay in the conversation.

There are many tools that can help you figure out what is going on internally and causing the urge to run or to fight in a given conversation. One of the most basic tools—take the time to ask yourself why you feel at risk and prepare for the varied responses.

If your response is to just shut down—you are leaving unresolved conflict on the table. And as we all know, unresolved conflict does not magically go away. It comes back sideways.

You may feel like in the moment you are avoiding the problem. But unresolved conflict is like riding a carousel. It is just a matter of time before you hit the same spot again.

If we don’t shut down, we often shoot the messenger.

When something we don’t like is said, or we are made to feel small—we react by taking the legs out from under the other party. We may resort to name calling, or we frame the conversation is a way to belittle our “opponent.”

We do whatever we need to do to feel like we have regained the upper hand on of the conversation.

Unfortunately, going on the offense destroys our ability to talk about what we actually need to talk about… the issue at hand.

Our fight mode in a difficult conversation will only serve to put the other party into fight or flight mode themselves.

In difficult conversations, we want to create an environment that enables us to talk about what we really need to talk about.

Will it be uncomfortable? Yes.

Are we going to have to manage the negative emotions we are feeling in the midst of it? Yes.

Are we going to have to make room for thoughts that we don’t like or may even be hurtful? Yes.

In creating the right environment, we have to collect the informational puzzle pieces needed for bringing resolution to the conflict. In the moment, that can be difficult to do.

A key to successful conversations is how we prepare for them.

Healthy process gets us to healthy relationships.

Often we have false perceptions about the other person’s motives and perspective.

We need to be gracious enough to allow for other people to share their feelings and ideas related to a topic—and we need to be confident and candid enough to share ours.

We may be surprised by what information comes to the table.

Fight or flight. Shut up or blow up. Neither one gets us to where we need to go in a conversation.

We want to get towards resolution.

Now, an important point about resolution—it does not mean that we have to be best friends with the person we are in conflict with.

Resolution means that we are able to work with the person. We want to strengthen the relationship a degree more than where it was when we entered the conflict.

How that looks will vary depending on the type of relationship.

If it is a coworker, we want to be able to work with them. If it is a neighbor, we want to be able to coexist.

Fight or flight is a recipe for disaster.

Your body is hardwired for it, but you can resist the chemical response by learning how to manage your emotions and lean into the conversation.

These are just a few insights that will help you navigate those critical conversations in your life and career, but there’s so much more.

There are powerful tools that can really help you become more effective, and we at Ember Learning are here to help. With over 25 years of professional consulting in top businesses around the country, we want to share some of our top insights with you.

Download our FREE PDF “15 Ways to Turn Hard Conversations into Win-Win Dialogue” now!

When Facing Conflict—Shut up or Blowup?


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