Most of us are expert at sabotaging conflict resolution whether we realise it or not.

In our daily interactions, conflicts and difficult conversations are inevitable. How we navigate these challenges can greatly impact our relationships, sense of self and ability to reach our goals. To effectively handle conflict, it is crucial to be aware of our sabotaging behaviors, prepare intentionally, engage with emotional intelligence, and seek resolution both in the present and for future interactions. By honing these skills, we can transform conflicts into opportunities for growth and understanding. Below are some key points to keep in mind when faced with conflict or a difficult conversation.

1. Learn your default sabotaging behaviours

Confrontation and conflict are stressful and we engage in default behaviours as a way of coping with the discomfort. We may think these behaviours are protective and helpful but more often than not, they sabotage us, our relationships and interactions. The most common sabotaging behaviours I’ve witnessed when it comes to conflict and difficult conversations are:

  • Avoidance and withdrawal
  • Prioritising harmony and being over-accommodating
  • Defensiveness and aggressiveness
  • Stonewalling and giving the silent treatment
  • Minimising and downplaying importance
  • Passive-aggressiveness
  • Shifting the blame onto others
  • Seeking validation and over-apologising

It’s key to understand your default sabotaging behaviours and the fears driving them. You can grow your awareness through self reflection (putting pen to paper is helpful here), self observation, asking for feedback from others and by talking it through with a professional coach. The most common fears that I’ve observed driving these sabotaging behaviours are:

  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of judgement
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of loss of control
  • Fear of being vulnerable

Once we have awareness of when we are exhibiting these learned tendencies, it provides us the opportunity to do something about them. We can then open up space to practice emotionally intelligent ways of working through conflict and disagreement.

2. Prepare Intentionally

In order to practice effective ways of managing conflict, we need to give ourselves time to prepare and get in the right mindset. When possible, spend time setting the intention for the conversation and clearly know what success looks like to you. Think through the points that are important for you to make so they are more readily available to you in the conversation. Reflect on what you know about the other person’s sabotaging tendencies so you aren’t surprised when they show up.

It’s also powerful to visualise yourself showing up in the interaction in a successful way, to imagine yourself managing the discomfort, conflict, fear and awkwardness competently. The mind doesn’t know the difference between what is a made-up experience and a real experience so visualisation is a very impactful way to practice and prepare.

Prioritise regulating your emotions before and during the interaction. There are a myriad of ways to self-regulate and it’s important to find the practices that work for you. These could include breathwork, stream of consciousness writing, meditation, mindful movement, creative self-expression, and talking things through with a trusted individual. When we are in a difficult interaction we need simple ways to be aware of how we are feeling and to manage the energy coursing through our bodies. Slow breathing, positive affirmations and simply reminding yourself that you are not your emotions can help keep you stay regulated or at least assist you to stay as grounded as possible in the difficult conversation while it lasts.

3. Engage with Emotional Intelligence

The opposite of sabotaging behaviour is emotionally intelligent behaviour. The bedrock of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. When we are aware of who we are – our values, guiding principles, strengths and weaknesses – we know what it feels like to show up authentically. When we are aware of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours in any given moment, we have the power to self-regulate when we need to.

Emotional intelligence is not just ‘self intelligence’ but also ‘social intelligence’ – how aware we are of the environments, people and energy around us and how well we manage them. When we can read the room and pick up on the states of other people, we then have access to vital information that allows us to communicate and make decisions effectively. In order to do so, we need to stop focusing on ourselves and focus outside of ourselves. We also need to actively and holistically listen to the people around us. These are skills to be practiced and honed, especially in conflict situations. We also need to be able to access our courage to speak up, to ask to be listened to when required, to hold firm on boundaries, and to not react when others are exhibiting sabotaging behaviour.

In tense and difficult interactions, it is beneficial to keep your body, tone of voice and facial expressions as neutral and composed as possible. Listen to your intuition and emotions, they may be trying to tell you something important about how the other person is showing up. Avoid personal or character attacks and keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand. It is possible to hold firm on your non-negotiables and boundaries whilst also showing respect for those of the other person. If you need to take a break, do so – taking the time and space to recompose yourself and ground yourself in your intentions can have a powerful impact on your ability to engage with equanimity.

4. Find Resolution Now and in the Future

Conflict often isn’t resolved from one interaction and that is perfectly ok and normal. Resolution may look like agreeing to disagree and finding a more creative path forward together or apart. Keeping things in perspective and practicing having an open and curious mind can help in creating collaborative solutions.

For the majority of us, conflict and difficult conversations are uncomfortable. However, the skills required to successfully move through them are only gained by having the courage to show up, engage and experiment. Be mindful that these experiences are learning experiences so give yourself time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t to set yourself up even better for the next time.