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‘Emotional Agility’ is Key to Keeping Your Cool During Conflict

Campus Ombuds shares strategies for handling family friction at the holidays

Author Kristen O'Neill | Publish Date December 15, 2020
What You Need To Know

Tools designed for addressing conflict in the workplace can also be used to diffuse discord in one’s personal life. The associate director of the Ombuds Office at the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus shares insight and techniques to help ensure your holidays are more merry than maddening.

For many of us, holiday stress can be heightened by familial conflict. As this particularly challenging year comes to a close, we sat down with Lisa Neale, BA, MSS, associate director of the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office, to learn how to apply techniques from “Crucial Conversations” – one of the most popular trainings offered by the dual campus Ombuds team – to successfully navigate conflict with loved ones, whether you are gathering in person or online this holiday season.

How do you describe your job to the casual inquirer? When someone says “What is an Ombuds? What do you do?”

Very few people are familiar with the term even though we're pretty widespread around the world. Depending on my audience, I might say, “I help people resolve conflicts” or “I am a mediator,” because we do facilitate mediations. Not formal mediations where there's a document signed. We’re a neutral, independent, confidential resource for faculty, staff and students, as opposed to the more formal nature of Human Resources.

If someone says, “Tell me more about what you mediate," a faculty and staff might be struggling to get along.  If someone asks how our office helps the institution, then I might give an anecdote like, "Think of me as a smoke detector for the institution, so that if I hear things going on, we can address them before it becomes a real fire." A canary-in-a-coal-mine type of thing. We’re a preventative measure to help the university run as efficiently as possible.

What is the most common type of conflict that you encounter and coach people through?

Interpersonal, across the board. People come to us and say, “I want a raise. Can you give me some language around that? I’m worried that my boss doesn't trust me.” Or “I don't trust my boss to do the right thing.” At the end of the day, at the root of everything, it’s all interpersonal. 

I’ve been at this job for over 15 years. One of my biggest takeaways is, we don't teach people in our culture, in our society, tools to manage conflict. We'll teach ourselves to crochet, we’ll take a class on the Middle Ages, but you don't see a lot of people saying, ‘I'd like to get better at managing conflict.’ In general, people come to us and say, ‘I'm basically reverting back to how I grew up. My conflict style is what I learned in my familial home.’"  

Do you and your fellow University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds typically notice an uptick in workplace conflict as we approach the holidays?  

Pre-COVID, we would notice an uptick in people trying to resolve conflict, package it up before they go on vacation or before the holidays so it's not hanging over their heads and they can tie a little bow on it. It's not very realistic, but it's just human nature, I think, that people say, "I should finally deal with this. It's been five years since I've been in conflict with this person, but let's just get it over with now." It doesn't always resolve nicely, because they've been putting it off and avoiding it, and there's a lot of residual feelings and expectations for the relationship prior to that.

During COVID, we're seeing a lot of people really struggling with mental health. This is probably not a surprise, but it's all just weighing down and it seems to be taking a toll, which is just tragic and so sad.

Do members of our campus community reach out to you for help navigating conflict in their personal lives, as well as seeking guidance for handling conflict in the workplace? 

I do have people come to me pretty regularly and say, "I'm about to go see my family and I don't know how to handle my emotions, how to manage my emotions." People reach out to see how they can have more constructive conversations with their family. I'll walk them through some skills and some tips from Crucial Conversations.

Amygdala hijack,” a term coined by science journalist Daniel Goleman, refers to an immediate, intense emotional response to conflict that is out of proportion with the event that triggered it. If you’ve ever overreacted to a situation in the heat of the moment, that response was coordinated by the amygdala, a collection of cells at the base of the brain, which, as part of the brain’s limbic system, regulates our behavioral and emotional responses to stimuli like fear, anxiety, anger and pleasure. 


When we experience conflict in which we feel threatened, the amygdala triggers our fight-or-flight response – the evolutionary defense mechanism that enables us to react decisively in the face of danger. In these situations, our amygdala is flooded with hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and testosterone. 


Conversely, when we experience feelings of trust, respect and validation – like when we are listened to and acknowledged – the neocortex part of the brain is bathed in serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, which calms the amygdala. 


The next time you find yourself in conflict and experiencing an overwhelming emotional response, you can remind yourself that it may be a case of amygdala hijack. Taking some deep breaths and evaluating the scope of your response versus the event that triggered it can help you determine if your reaction is out of proportion, or perfectly suited, to the situation at hand.

What are some of those skills and tips from Crucial Conversations that people can use to successfully navigate conflict with family and friends?

Something from Crucial Conversations we'll say is, "What do you really want for yourself and for the relationship?" In general, we tend to slide into less-helpful motives like, "I want to look good. I want to be right. I want to punish. I want to blame." In those moments, those amygdala hijacks [please see sidebar for more information on this term], I rely on my Crucial Conversations skills and say, "All right, what do I really want long-term here? Long-term, I want to have a good working relationship or a good personal relationship with this person." 

Okay, so the first step is asking yourself this question. Knowing what you want, what your goal is, when you’re interacting with the person(s) with whom you’re having conflict.

Exactly. If you're able to manage your emotions and stay emotionally agile in a conflict, that's 90% of the work right there. 

What do you mean by “emotionally agile”?

To me, “agile” and “regulated” mean the same thing: that I'm even-keeled. I'm cool, calm, collected.

How do you manage your emotions in a difficult conversation or interaction, so you can remain calm, cool, and collected amid a conflict?

If you want to remain emotionally agile and regulated, ask yourself: what is a positive story you could tell yourself about the other person that you can get behind? It doesn't have to be 100% true, but it's something that you can say, "Yeah, I buy that." 

In other words, if I'm about to have a difficult conversation with you and maybe you and I in the past have not seen eye to eye, I want to be as calm, cool, and collected with you as possible. So I might say, "Kristen loves her cats." When I say something like that, it's either a neutral or a warm feeling that I have. But if I say something negative, that's chemical. All this is chemical; it runs through us. It takes about 45 minutes to dissipate a feeling. If I can generate feelings that are positive about you in a difficult conversation, I'm ahead of the game. 

Let’s say my dad is married to a woman who is very challenging and very difficult. When I'm around her, I need to come up with a good story where I'm emitting good stuff, not bad stuff. Every time I'm around her, it becomes my mantra: "She takes good care of my dad. She takes good care of my dad." Getting behind that positive story helps keep you even-keeled. 

Lisa_Neale_Ombuds_Headshot

Lisa Neale, BA MSS

Why is this “tell yourself a good story about the person” technique so effective? Is it all about what chemicals are coursing through a person during a challenging conversation?

What I talk about – and I really gleaned this from Crucial Conversations myself – is: we as human beings are storytellers. We're not factual. We tell stories to make sense of what we see in the world because we're still creatures of that fight or flight response, that amygdala hijack. What we're assessing is, "Am I safe?" It's not only what our ancestors went through with tigers and bears and that kind of stuff, but it's now, "Am I psychologically safe in either my workplace or in a familial situation?"

As human beings, we tell stories and they're usually negative about others. "He's trying to undermine me." Then we tell ourselves stories about ourselves that are noble, kind, and true. This is called Attribution Theory in psychology, which basically says we're more likely to give positive attribution to ourselves for an event and negative attributions to others for the same event. 

My best example of this is being late to work. If I'm late to work, I'm going to say things like, "Oh my God, the traffic. Oh my God, the population surge in Colorado." But about you I might say "You know, Kristen doesn't manage her time very well." Or, "We know she's bingeing The Sopranos right now, so her focus is elsewhere.” Acknowledging that we're going to tell negative stories about others is the first step.

The stories we tell ourselves about others can be influenced by our personal wounds, and the prism through which we view the world. For example, if someone feels they are not listened to or not respected by a family member, they can unconsciously bring that dynamic to the workplace, and find themselves in conflict over issues in which they feel disrespected or not listened to. Is this an area you encourage people to examine, in terms of the stories they tell themselves about others?

It's a great question because I think we as Ombuds really walk a very solid line between being a therapist or a counselor, and being a conflict coach. When I'm talking with people and they say, "This person is so disrespectful, this person is bullying me." I'll say, "Let's be behaviorally specific. What do they say or do that makes you think that they're being disrespectful?" Maybe nine times out of 10, they can't tell me. They can't point to a specific behavior. So I might say, "That could be a possible story you're telling yourself how you are interacting with this person, so let's be behaviorally specific." If there is no data there around behaviors, what's that about for you? Maybe that's something for you to explore on your own. 

But if they say things like, "They interrupt me." That's a fact. “They roll their eyes when I’m speaking.” That's a fact. That's being behavior specific. Then I can help them. "All right, if you'd like to have a conversation with this person, I'll help you." We can create a script where you could say, "I want to talk about what happened in the last meeting. When I mentioned budgets, you rolled your eyes. You looked at your phone three times and you interrupted me twice. I'm beginning to wonder if there's a lack of respect here. Is that what's happening, or is something else going on?” That is directly from Crucial Conversations. That gives them a template to go back and have that conversation. Sometimes I'll even practice with them so they get really familiar with the language in the script. Then they can go back and address it.

As a rule, do you encourage people to script their opening statement before they have a crucial or potentially challenging conversation?

Absolutely. Even before they open their mouth, I ask, “What's your good story about this person so that you're even-keeled?” That's the baseline. Before anything, you need to know what your story is going to be. Then you can formulate your script. Then, right before you have that conversation, remind yourself: what is my story?

Let’s say I’ve identified my goal for the conversation; I’ve come up with a good story about them, and I’ve scripted my opening statement/question. How do I prepare for how the other person might react and how the conversation unfolds from there?

I think it’s good to remember that old saying, “First seek to understand, then to be understood.” What you're really doing is, you want to understand where they're coming from. I always go back to the facts. Let's say they say, "Yeah, I am angry at you. In that meeting you completely ignored me. I feel like you've written me off.” 

Using your Crucial Conversations skills, you could say, "Okay, so help me understand what I said or did that made you feel ignored. Because my intention here is to never make anybody feel ignored. Do you remember what I said or what I did? Because then I'll stop doing it. I won't do that again." 

You're saying be curious. Be an active listener. But in order to do both of those things, we can’t be on the defensive.

Exactly. Obviously tone is important. If you’re acting like [adopts defensive tone] “What did I do? What did I do?” they are not going to open up and give you information. But being genuinely curious about what their perspective is, and getting their behaviorally-specific feedback as to what you said or did, that’s something you can build on.  

What if, despite me being curious and actively listening, the conversation becomes challenging, awkward, or detours into the weeds or another unproductive direction?

It's a great question because there's so much we can't predict. Humans are messy. We're not perfect. It's easy to get defensive. 

Take some deep breaths and remind yourself of your motive: “What do I really want? I want to have a good relationship with this person.” Stick to your good story mantra: “They are a good provider” or “They are a supportive coworker” or whatever it may be. Remain curious. Listen and reflect back to them. You're teaching them that you'll listen. You're teaching them that you want to hear from them. You're doing more of the work, but you're also being an influencer. 

I think also it’s helpful to be intentional. To say it aloud at the very beginning: "This is what I want and I don't want you to misinterpret my intent." You can say, "My intention here is, I really want to have a good working relationship with you." Oftentimes with scripts, I’ll suggest something like “I don't want you to think that I'm trying to criticize your work. I do want to find ways where we can work together and streamline our processes so we're not creating an extra burden for everybody." 

After people take Crucial Conversations, I tell them, “Here’s what's unfair about this. You just spent 16 hours learning this and the people that you're going to go interact with, statistically speaking, are not going to have the same skill set as you." That's not fair, but very little is fair in conflict anyway. 

What you have the ability to do is influence that conversation and impact that relationship in a good way. You're spreading good energy and good faith. You're showing, "I know how to handle a conflict and you can trust me. I'm not going to punish you for you sharing ideas. I'm going to thank you and we're going to build on this.”

How do I know when it’s time to address conflict with a coworker, friend or family member? When behavior or language is “a big enough deal” to initiate a dialogue about it?

If something happens once and it's not egregious, let it go. If it becomes a pattern, then go through the steps. Going back to the example with my dad’s wife: if she develops a pattern, and it's really bothering me, then I can have a conversation with her and say, "Hey, the last three times that we've gotten together, you've mentioned this every single time, and it's making me wonder if something's bothering you, or if  I'm doing something that’s bothering you. You've brought it up several times, so is this something that we should talk about?" 

How honest should I be when I’m trying to address, and hopefully resolve, conflict?

The goal is to be as honest as possible while also being respectful; that’s how you thread the needle with Crucial Conversations. How to set it up so that your motives are good, you're emotionally agile and aware, but you're still telling the facts. What I love about the Crucial Conversations approach is, you're also remaining tentative. I could be totally wrong here, so I'm going to pitch this as, “This is how I'm seeing things. What is your perspective?”

Last question: what is the most common misstep or mistake that people make in conversations where there is friction or conflict?

Not regulating your emotions, and letting that bad story get the better of you. If I feel like you're disrespecting me, then I'm going to be defensive about it. Now that bad story has taken on a life of its own, and it’s not helpful. It’s not productive. And we don’t even know if it's true. But it's the story we tell ourselves, and then we act accordingly. 

That’s the number one thing – don’t let that bad story get the better of you. Use your good story to regulate your emotions. If you can do that, that’s most of the job right there. 

Steps for Successfully Addressing Conflict:
  1. Identify your goal.
  2. Choose your good story.
  3. Script your opening.
  4. Actively listen and reflect back.
  5. Remind yourself of your good story as needed.