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How to Deal With Conflict Effectively
Learn to thrive in difficult situations by mastering your feelings, thoughts, and behavior
I wasn’t in trouble very often at school, but once when I was 10 I did something really bad. A friend of mine, Charlie, approached me from behind by surprise and grabbed the back of my neck.
Without thinking, I spun around and punched Charlie hard on the nose.
Twenty minutes later I was in my headteacher’s office, covered in Charlie’s blood.
My headteacher, Mr. Jones, wasn’t a bad guy. He was quite kind to me at first. But I was overcome by the situation — something about the power dynamic and my own vulnerability made me petrified. I was unable to answer any questions about what I’d done. My heart pounded, my palms started sweating, and I just sat there and stuttered. This only made Mr. Jones angry, which, in turn, made me more nervous.
Over the years, I’ve helped people improve the way they handle conflict, and I’ve learned a lot about conflict.
As a therapist, I helped young people deal with underlying issues with anxiety and anger that led to problems interacting with others.
In my job defending students who are undergoing investigation for cheating or malpractice. This often means dealing with conflict on their behalf—as an adult, I’ve found myself transported back to the Mr. Jones’s office many times. The fact that it’s not me that’s punched anyone in the nose doesn’t make it much easier.
Personally, I’ve never embraced confrontation. Truth be told, I find conflict difficult. But I’ve found ways to overcome my difficulties.
Here’s how you can apply what I’ve learned from my work and from my own struggles with conflict management. I’ve broken it down into three elements:
- Processing your feelings.
- Rationalizing your thoughts.
- Gaining control of your feelings.
Processing Your Feelings
Our emotions have the power to ruin any interaction — if they’re not harnessed appropriately.
The problem in my Headteacher’s office wasn’t that I was experiencing too much emotion. It’s appropriate to be scared by a scary situation. As existential psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said:
“An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
The problem was in the way I was managing my feelings. I can forgive the ten-year-old me for this — but it’s a challenge to handle these situations well as an adult, too.
As an adult, I ran into a similar situation: I attended a disciplinary hearing with a student, an Astronomy post-grad I’ll call Mike. We prepared for that meeting together for two weeks. The university gave Mike the names of a couple of students he’d supposedly plagiarized. Mike assured me that it was all a big misunderstanding. Sure, there was some similarity between his work and these other students’, but he certainly hadn’t copied them — he’d never even heard of those people.
Unfortunately, during the meeting, the disciplinary panel revealed that Mike had in fact copied everything in his thesis, down to the spelling mistakes in the citations — and that not only did he know the other students, he actually lived with them.
As we witnessed this panel of academics gleefully tearing apart Mike’s ludicrous explanation, Mike looked at me in desperation. “I’m sorry I lied,” his eyes said, “please, save me.”
I wasn’t angry with Mike — I was embarrassed that I’d believed him, ashamed of how I’d handled his case, and, honestly, afraid. I began to feel my palms sweating like they had in my headteacher’s office 20 years earlier. I was not in control.
Here’s how to cope if you’re in similar situations.
Accept How You Feel During Confrontations
I got a lot better at my job — but how I feel in these situations hasn’t changed very much.
At first I would beat myself up about it. I wasn’t 10 anymore — how could I justify such a childish response to conflict? The academics I sat opposite in these meetings weren’t my headteacher or my parents. Being afraid of them just seemed stupid.
Pushing these feelings away, however, can backfire.
When I worked as a therapist with high school kids, one of my students, who I’ll call Chloe, who was plagued by negative feelings. Chloe came from a wealthy family — she loved her parents, she had plenty of friends, and she did well at school. So why was she perpetually depressed and anxious?
Acutely aware of her privileged and comfortable existence, she couldn’t accept or justify her own negative feelings to herself. Thus, every negative emotion was doubled and intensified— she was ashamed of her shame, and anxious about her anxiety.
Research shows that suppressing feelings creates more problems. As part of a 2017 study published in the Journal of Personal Social Psychology, 150 people were given two minutes to prepare a presentation about themselves. Many people would feel anxious in this situation — myself included. But what the researchers found was that those who suppressed their feelings of anxiety actually fared worse than those who accepted them.
Another element of the same study involved asking over 1,000 people how they managed their negative feelings. Those who reported “habitually accepting mental experiences” (i.e. embracing emotions, whether good or bad) were found to have better long-term psychological well-being and life satisfaction.
The answer to my difficulties with confrontations hasn’t been to suppress or ignore my feelings of shame and anxiety. It’s been to focus on them directly. Let’s look at how to do that.
Focus on Your Senses
Psychotherapist Fritz Perls said:
Lose your mind and come to your senses.
When I’m in a difficult situation, and I feel that pit in the bottom of my stomach, I realize that I’m starting to get anxious.
There are two options at this point:
- Try, somehow, to force my body into not producing these physiological sensations. Deny the reality of how I’m feeling.
- Pause for a moment. Recognize what’s happening. Stop, and feel how I feel. Then deal with the situation at hand.
How you feel in any given situation is a fact. Your feelings don’t necessarily reflect reality — in fact, our feelings are notoriously unreliable indicators of external reality. But the feelings themselves are real.
Even if the murderer you hear downstairs turns out the be your cat, your fear is real.
Psychotherapist and author of Focusing, Eugene Gendlin said:
“What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.”
Being aware of one’s experiences “in the moment” is a key tenet of mindfulness. This approach really works.
A 2016 study by Laurent et al found that couples who engaged in “present moment, nonjudgmental awareness” of their feelings during conflict showed decreased levels of stress hormones. According to the study, this mindful approach to conflict:
“does not necessarily dampen the intensity of negative experiences […] the power of this approach lies in the ability to “unstick” from emotional experiences.”
You can still feel your feelings — but you’ll be in a better position to choose how you respond to them.
The next time you’re in a confrontational situation:
- Pause and pay attention.
- Recognize what’s happening inside.
- Accept it.
Paradoxically, this puts you in a position to let go of how you’re feeling, and allows your brain step in.
Rationalize Your Thinking
In my days as a high school therapist I had another student, who I’ll call James. Unlike Chloe, James was not anxious about his anxiety. He was anxious, for sure — to the point that he struggled to leave his house, and would skip school several days every week. But having been continuously bullied and beaten up throughout his life — first by his father, then by a succession of his mother’s boyfriends, then by his classmates — James felt he had a good reason to be anxious.
To others, James came across as nonchalant and rude. He gave the impression of someone who was uninterested in conversation.
It took two excruciating sessions to elicit much more than grunts from him. Out of desperation, I turned to Jenga. This helped. As long as he was balancing one wooden block atop another, James was at least capable of speaking actual words. After we’d progressed to Battleships, full sentences were not uncommon. I was getting somewhere.
I realized that James was actually scared.
Tame Your Inner Caveman
Our brains are hardwired to sense danger. The caveman who failed to notice the predator in a nearby bush would soon became its dinner. Our ancestors had to be vigilant, and hyper-aware of danger.
This anxiousness served us well in prehistory, but it doesn’t translate to a modern context.
Robert Wright makes this observation in his book Why Buddhism is True:
“Natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.”
Your feelings are valid. They’re most often the “correct” response to your thoughts.
But that doesn’t mean your thoughts are accurate.
Our survival instincts mean that we tend to overstate the level of danger involved in any difficult situation — even everyday conversations. Observing these irrational beliefs and noting what’s real gives you better options for moving into action.
Identify Your Anxious Thoughts
Once James had come out of his shell a little, we began talking about his thoughts. Whenever he found himself in a conversation with someone new, James thought things like:
- “She’ll get angry if I disagree with her.”
- “They’ll laugh at me if I give my opinion.”
- “He’ll lose patience with me if I talk for too long.”
I understood the reasons why James thought in this way — his previous experiences reinforced it. James and I explored his thoughts in great depth. We didn’t let them get away. In our work together, James could test the validity of these unhelpful anxious beliefs. You can learn to do this, too.
Identify Your Angry Thoughts
Not everyone feels anxious during confrontation. I worked with another high school student, I’ll call her Gemma, whose default way of being in any difficult interaction was anger.
Gemma came across as a happy and charming individual. But she’d be in trouble many times for flying off the handle and screaming at her fellow students.
During a difficult conversation, Gemma would think things like:
- “They think they’re better than me.”
- “She thinks she can walk all over me.”
- “I’d better hit this guy before he hits me.”
On one level, Gemma was right to feel angry. Anger was an appropriate response to her irrational beliefs.
Over the course of our work, Gemma was able to probe and test these angry thoughts. I won’t pretend Gemma’s anger issues completely disappeared as a result of our work together. But by recognizing the sorts of thoughts that came up for her, and realizing that they didn’t always stand up to scrutiny, Gemma began to develop a way to better manage confrontations.
Challenge Your Beliefs
Back when I was a child in my headteacher’s office, I kept telling myself that he was going to hit me. I was small, he was big. I’d hit Charlie —so I deserved to be hit back. My headteacher was angry, and angry people were violent.
Twenty years later, at the astronomy student Mike’s disciplinary hearing, I didn’t fear being hit. But I did fear being yelled at, laughed at, or being told I was bad at my job.
It’s easy to reflect on these thoughts from a safe distance — in hindsight, I can see how irrational they were: Mr. Jones was a nice guy, and the headteachers of late 20th-century England weren’t in the business of hitting children. That panel of academics may have been a little angry with Mike for cheating, but they were hardly going to start yelling at me, the poor sap whose job was to sit next to him while he died of embarrassment.
In the moment of conflict, it’s not always easy to reassure ourselves about our emotional thoughts. But it is possible, and it can be extremely effective.
Turn your attention to any unhelpful thoughts you might be having. Don’t ignore them; don’t let them hide. Shine a light on them, and ask yourself if they’re accurate and reasonable.
The next time you find yourself in a confrontation:
- Listen carefully to your thoughts.
- Ask yourself if they really reflect reality.
- Check if this makes you feel any different.
Gain Control of Your Behavior
In the mid-20th century, a new school of psychiatry emerged called Transactional Analysis. Its founder, Eric Berne, believed he could learn about his patients by observing how they interacted with others. This idea stood in contrast to the earlier view of psychiatrists like Freud — who would learn about patients by asking them questions.
Berne believed that during every interaction, we operate in one of three “ego states”:
- Parent: where we behave in the way we observed authority figures behaving when we were children. In Parent state, we might frequently use generalizing words like “always” and “never”, or “good” and “bad”, or we might shout if we were shouted at.
- Adult: where we behave in a rational and measured way.
- Child: where we behave in the way we learned to behave as children. In Child state, we might use words and phrases like “I must” and “I won’t”, or “I hate” and “I love”.
All these states are important, and common to everyone. Life isn’t about constantly aiming to operate in one or another of them, but about finding a balance between them, and knowing which is most appropriate in a given situation.
Noticing Your Own Ego State
My wife and I are very much in love. But we can argue about some really stupid stuff. Anyone who’s lived with another person can probably relate.
Here’s what I sometimes do wrong in these situations, from the perspective of Transactional Analysis:
- I hear my wife ask me to wash the dishes.
- In Child state, I feel like she’s admonishing for not having already done it. When my wife says “would you mind washing the dishes?”, I hear “why haven’t you washed the dishes?”.
- Still in Child state, I imagine that my wife believes I’m not doing enough around the house.
- I get defensive over this imagined slight, and shift into Parent state. I say something like “I always wash the dishes. It’s your turn.”
- I do the dishes despite feeling that I shouldn’t have to, which usually involves some unnecessarily rough treatment of the crockery. Clearly, my Child state is back in charge.
In his book about conflict and relationships, Games People Play, Berne says:
“Awareness requires living in the here and now, and not in the elsewhere, the past or the future.”
In retrospect it seems so obvious which ego state I’m operating in throughout this transaction - consider the language I was using, my tone of voice, my body language.
But in the moment, when emotions are running high, it takes practice to recognize what’s happening.
Notice How the Other Person’s Behaving
In Transactional Analysis, conflict arises where there two incompatible ego states collide. Here’s an example of how this might happen:
- You tell your boss that you need to take a day off to look after your sick kid. You say this in a reasonable way, that is neither demanding nor excessively apologetic. You’re speaking from your Adult ego state.
- Your boss responds by saying that you’re always taking time off, and you don’t seem to care about your job. His tone is condescending and his body language is bullish. He’s speaking from his Parent ego state.
When you speak from Adult, you expect to hear Adult back. Your boss’s response is unhelpful.
There are three options now:
- You could respond in Child. “I’m so sorry. I really need my job. Please don’t think I’m not committed.” Or, ”I hate the way you always talk to me like I’m lazy. I quit!”
- You could respond in Parent. “Don’t talk to me like that! I work my butt off for this company, and I don’t need that tone from you!”
- You could respond in Adult. “I appreciate that this might put you in a difficult position. But I really can’t see that I have any other choice but to look after my kid. I’m sure you can understand that.”
It’s obvious which is the best option. Of course, you can still address your boss’s rudeness by speaking from Adult. You might even decide to quit. But you’ll be doing so at the right moment, and in a way that commands respect—not at the whims of your emotions. There’s no guarantee that your boss will respond in Adult. But it’s much more likely to elicit a sensible response.
The best response depends on context: the Adult state isn’t always the way to go. A Child who’s telling you they’re sick might want a nurturing Parent to respond. All three ego states have their role to play. If you can spot which ego state the other person is in, you’ll be well-placed to make the right choices in any situation.
When you’re in a confrontation:
- Take note of your behavior — your words, body language and tone.
- Observe the other person’s behavior.
- Adjust your behavior accordingly.
Putting it All Into Practice
I’m still not someone who seeks out confrontations. I still feel anxious during conflict. I still have irrational thoughts. I don’t expect these things to ever go away completely, but they have subsided.
What’s important is how we manage these processes.
- Turn your attention to how you’re feeling. Pause and pay attention. Accept it.
- Notice and challenge any irrational thinking that arises. Consider the beliefs that you are acting on and whethere they are really true.
- Be aware of how you and everyone else is acting, and adjust your behavior accordingly. Are you acting from a child, parent, or adult state? Is that the most effective state to act from?
This isn’t rocket science, but it is effective.
So much of what’s important in life depends on coping with difficult situations effectively. Once you become the expert on how you feel, think and act in such situations, you can develop a strategy to get the outcomes you want.