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Feelings as Normal – and Safe - The Absolute Essentials Toolkit for Healthy Conflict, Part III

(Originally published November 25, 2019)

We live in a very, very different age from when I was growing up (insert joke about did they have writing back then, or had they discovered fire, whatever works for you, here). Back in the day we who were boys were taught that emotions or strong feelings were, well, unmanly.

(Not that we ever gained a clear picture of manly, btw. It was somehow a cross between John Wayne, Bruce Willis in Diehard and the Sean Connery James Bond. Tough, resourceful, briefly kind but only to women and not always then, and most of all IMPASSIVE, unemotional in the face of ANYTHING – that was somehow manly.)

I’m thankful that the Millennials are developing new understandings of what it means to be male, but there is still a great deal of pressure in this culture to restrain, shut down and even hide emotion, especially in the workplace. And it isn’t just men. Women, also, are taught to be in control of emotions at work or run the risk of being labeled “unprofessional”.

That may or may not be the most useful way to roll at work, but I have my doubts. I am clear about this: shutting down and rejecting emotion is a dangerous game when it comes to functional conflict skills. I’m not talking about unbridled screaming, yelling, or throwing computers out windows. I’m talking about acknowledging the role of emotion in conflict situations, and what’s useful to us if we’re going to navigate conflict intelligently and productively.

Even talking about emotion, in this day and age, can be a very uncomfortable subject. So let’s make it simple: people have feelings, emotions, when they are engaged in difficult conversations. It’s only human. If we shut them down, reject them or label them as bad we’re making it much more difficult for conflict to happen in healthy, productive ways.

Crazy Notions about Emotions

Lots of us grow up with less-than-useful thinking about the role of feelings in our lives. Mix that with the general LACK of education around how to do conflict skillfully and safely and yikes – we can really get in our own way.

Some of us think that having strong feelings (unless, maybe, we’re talking about unbridled joy or great love, and not always then) is somehow indicative of a lack of control – or rationality. If someone gets angry, or loud, or starts to cry, then we can become very, very uncomfortable. We’re embarrassed for them, and for ourselves. We’re supposed to stay cool, collected, calm. Worse, we’re afraid that showing emotion will lose us respect in other people’s eyes.

Which, of course, is absolutely counter to what’s happening physically and emotionally when we engage in conflict of any significance to us. Flight or Fight (as discussed in my blog post HERE) activates in many conflict situations, and you bet if it does we will have emotions roll through us. There are better and worse ways to manage those emotions, those strong feelings, but Spock-like control is, well, a science-fiction story, and often will run counter to healthy, productive conflict.

Other folks think that it isn’t just poor form to have strong emotions in a conflict situation, but that it’s actually dangerous. Given some of our respective histories that isn’t necessarily a crazy thought – some of us have experienced some ugly fights in our lives.

Another reason we think of the display of strong emotions in a conflict is how some of us, sometimes, reach a breaking point in the control of feelings, and we blow up! Shouting, raging, saying hurtful things, etc. is something else many of us have lived through in less-than-well-managed interpersonal fights, and it seems to show up when we’re least prepared for such reactions.

Finally, bottling or ignoring emotions often makes it very difficult TO think clearly, which is another reason to let feelings move through us and other people. Often we have to feel first before we can get to the thing that’s actually making us crazy, making us angry, etc.

The disconnect is the idea that emotions HAVE to be dangerous or they will always lead to danger. The truth is that it isn’t about NOT having feelings or keeping them bottled up. It’s about the healthy management of those feelings – by all the parties in a conflict.

Taking a Cue from the Italians (or Greeks, or other Mediterranean Cultures)

Thankfully there are cultures in the world that can serve as models for ways to manage emotions well in conflict. One of my favorite films is “Moonstruck”, and it’s a classic example of people who are not concerned about the display or presence of emotion in an argument. In fact if anything they have those feelings and then they are done, and nobody is the worse for it.

It can be disconcerting as a descendant of Northern Europeans to watch the characters in “Moonstruck” go at each other! They yell, they say angry things, and 30 seconds later it’s all done and they have moved on. No simmering rages, no bottled feelings, just direct communication coupled with a comfort that emotions can and do surface in those discussions.

I’m not suggesting we all become Italian (although imagine the world if we did). I am suggesting that we need a similar attitude towards the presence and display of emotion when things get heated. We are well-served to stop treating emotions as the unwanted visitor to an argument, but instead treat them as part of the team…

So, What Does Allowing For Emotions in Conflict Look Like, Precisely?

For starters we can practice standing down from taking emotion all that seriously – in ourselves or in other people. Feelings come and go. They are the byproduct of what we’re thinking, so they will shift as our thinking shifts. In truth they are less significant than the thing being argued about, and we do well to focus less on them and more on resolving what the conflict is about. Let feelings move through the room.

Permit me to reference Flight or Fight again. In the midst of an argument we will feel more or less threatened, more or less angry, more or less anxious or worried. Feelings will flux and change, and that’s normal, healthy, natural.

This, as I said, takes practice. But understanding the inevitable and transitory nature of emotions in a conflict context is an utterly vital practice.

We can also employ ground rules, including ground rules for the management of emotions. Allowing for strong feelings in a difficult conversation isn’t the same thing as permitting emotions to take over the discussion. If, for example, swearing doesn’t work for you when someone is mad, set a ground rule for no swearing.

Put another way, allowing for the presence of emotion doesn’t mean we can’t set boundaries around how we manage our emotions. That will vary enormously from person to person, of course. Maybe you’re OK with swearing, but not OK with someone storming out of the room. Negotiate a ground rule!

Interestingly enough one of the best tools for helping manage emotions effectively is simply listening. I know I beat the drum of effective listening pretty fiercely, but more than a quarter-century of study and work on effective conflict leaves me with this simple truth: sometimes all feelings need is a respectful audience.

You don’t have to take responsibility for those feelings, you don’t have to fix them, you just have to let them come – and go. We often frame listening in terms of hearing someone’s words, but sometimes, especially in the heat of battle, it can be about just respecting how someone is feeling.

It’s All About What Works

Allowing feelings to just be, respecting them without taking them too seriously, letting them move through the difficult conversation as they have need to – this is a hugely useful thing to practice when striving for effective, safe, smart conflict.

Expect this to take some practice! But with that practice will come Zen-like calm in difficult conversations that will amaze your friends and colleagues alike…


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