WHEN THE HACKLES GO UP

I spend a lot of time thinking about how our emotions impact how we engage with conflict. I mean, have you ever found yourself churning over a situation with another person, thinking about your next interaction, and your mind is racing, your heart is beating faster and you feel sweaty and nothing has actually even happened yet?

Let me tell you about my dog, Stanley. Stanley is a big love-hound of a Great Dane. He is everyone’s friend, and if he isn’t your friend yet, he wants to be. At 175 pounds, Stanley has quite an imposing stature. Cue the comments: “nice horse – you should put a saddle on him.”

The small dogs that walk with other humans make different comments, which, translated into English sound like “whatever you are, you need to stay back or I’m going to beat you up.” Then, inevitably, the human says, “oh Mittens, that dog could eat you for breakfast!”

Note: Great Danes do not eat other dogs for breakfast. Or for any other meal for that matter.

Stanley gets two walks a day, just about every day. As much as Stanley is a creature of habit, so are his humans – and so, invariably, we end up walking the same routes fairly routinely. This means we pass many houses in our neighbourhood several times a week. In those houses, or the yards of those houses, are other dogs who see Stanley out for a walk, and out of boredom, jealousy or sheer intimidation of his size, bark and bark as he approaches and passes by.

Stanley is smarter than I am when it comes to these interactions. After a couple of times of dogs losing their minds on us from behind a fence or window, he memorizes the location of this house for all time and anticipates the freak-out before it happens. Stanley’s hackles get raised. The fur on the back of his neck stands on end. His step gets jumpy. His breathing gets loud and chuffy. His head and tail are up and he is on total alert. At this point, his fight or flight instinct has been invoked. Whatever the dog might do on the other side of the fence, Stanley is ready for action.

When Stanley’s hackles get raised, I often have cause to think about the interactions with people when I have anticipated conflict – those times when my own hackles get raised. Before the interaction even happens, my mind races, my heart rate increases, and my fight or flight instinct is dialed right up. I might even have a sense of dread.

When I’m like this, it might not matter what the other person says or does. I’m much more likely to take it the wrong way, to feel hurt, to fire back with a jab and escalate conflict. Certainly, it’s obvious that I’m not in problem-solving mode. I know for sure I’m not the only one this happens to.

We need to understand the role our emotions play in how we engage with other people. When we are upset, it is not a good time to have a productive conversation about something difficult. Sometimes we wind ourselves up and make ourselves more upset beforehand, and come into the interaction with our hackles already raised, ready to fight or flee.

You’ll be happy to know that I am no longer caught by surprise at those key houses, or when a scrappy small dog is approaching on the sidewalk, because Stanley has taught me to anticipate the worst case reaction and to lead us across the street beforehand.

I can use a similar strategy when I’m feeling chuffy myself, and steer away from an interaction I am anticipating will be difficult – until  I am in a calmer headspace. I can also engage the strategies outlined in the previous post to bring calm to myself, to the other person and to the situation.

Manage emotionally-charged situations better

The previous post explored what’s going on in our brains when we are upset and why difficult conversations can backfire when one or both of the people feel upset. This post outlines tips and strategies for what to do when things are emotionally charged.

1. Develop self awareness: Know that when we are upset and reactive, we do not have access to our complex, logical processing to solve problems or engage in productive conversations. Notice what happens to you physiologically when you feel upset. What changes about your thought patterns? Journal about your observations.

2. Adopt self-calming strategies: Learn about mindfulness. Do research to help you find grounding exercises that work for you, such as deep breathing, mediation, gratitude practice, going for a walk, self-validation statements, or self-reflection in a journal. The purpose is to find ways to calm ourselves so we can engage the problem-solving parts of our brains as opposed to ramping up the reactive parts of our brains. These practices will be individual to us and may take some trial and error. This article has many ideas as a starting point.

3. Notice the other person: Pay attention to what happens with the people in your life when they are upset. Do you see signs of them winding up (red in the face, talking loudly) or shutting down (going quiet, walking out). Ask yourself if this is the right time and place to be having the conversation you are trying to have. Remember: telling someone to “calm down” has never in the history of time calmed someone down. Practice making EAR statements to help calm upset people:

4. Don’t try to have ‘the conversation’ when people are upset: Learn and practice respectful strategies to exit a conversation when you or the other person (or both) are upset. Use neutral wording that avoids accusations, such as:

  • I realize I’m feeling upset right now. This is important to me and I want us to talk about it but I need to wait until later when I’m feeling more calm.
  • This conversation is important but I think it will go better if we both take a break and come back to it later.

Things not to say if you are hoping for a productive conversation later (emphasis on blame):

  • You make me so angry! I can’t talk to you right now! Leave me alone!
  • You are so inappropriate and disrespectful. Don’t talk to me until you can be civil!

5. Plan to talk later when both people are calm: When we feel activated and reactive, we might think we need to have the conversation now. Other people might want to avoid the conversation at all costs. Both of those approaches escalate conflict. One solution is to agree on a time to reconnect to see if you are ready to have a conversation in a problem-solving way. That means when you use strategy #4 to respectfully end a conversation, propose a time or place when you could talk later, such as:

  • Could we connect at 3:00 pm? I have some time then and I’ll do my best to be in a better frame of mind so we can sort this out together.
  • Can I call you in the morning to talk this through? I’ll be able to do a better job of that after I’ve slept on it. How about 9:00 am?

The Upshot: Master the Strategic Pause

When we feel triggered or activated and we go into reactive mode, we might escalate (fight), walk out (flight) or shut down (freeze). The part of our brain that is dominant at that point is allocating resources to ensure our physical survival. That part of the brain is good at reacting quickly but not good at complex logical processing or productive communication.

When we are in flight, flight or freeze mode, we can escalate conflict even when we didn’t mean to. To gain access to the parts of our brains that are able to think more logically and solve problems or resolve conflicts, both we and the other person must be calm.

That means learning and practicing skills to respectfully end a conversation if someone is in reactive mode, engaging in self-calming strategies, and learning how to make effective EAR statements to calm upset people. It also means arranging to talk another time after both people have to have time to reflect and become calm but not waiting so long that the conflict is permitted to linger or fester.

Shifting how we engage with conflict takes know-how, effort and practice. Talk to us to explore how our training, facilitation, coaching, mediation or our other services might help to improve how your organization engages with conflict.

Why we can’t have effective conversations when we are upset

We are undeniably, collectively feeling emotionally stretched. The pandemic, racial reckoning, climate change, global political polarization and a challenging labour market has many of us feeling stretched like elastic bands, ready to snap.

We find ourselves in reactive mode and our emotions may be closer to the surface. A disagreement happens at work or home, we find ourselves feeling upset and compulsively needing to talk about it. Then we are mystified that the conversation not only didn’t go well but actually made things worse. We feel even more hurt, distressed, disrespected, dismissed and upset. The conflict is not resolved and may have escalated even more. Worse yet, we stop seeing any path forward because ‘obviously, trying to talk to the person didn’t work.’

Effective conflict resolution or problem-solving requires piecing together a few different elements. One of those is understanding that we can’t have productive problem-solving conversations when someone is upset and reactive. It helps to understand a little about how our brains operate when we feel threatened, the role that plays in escalating conflict.

As many of us have learned, when we perceive a threat, our brains engage a reactive mode of fight, flight or freeze. This survival mode allows us to make snap decisions, reacting to perceived danger without thinking. In The Joy of Conflict Resolution,[1] Gary Harper describes our physical and mental reactions to feeling hurt or angry, or when our emotions are high. When these feelings of threat are triggered, our bodies have a physiological response. Adrenaline and other chemicals are released into our bloodstreams, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, the heart pounds, blood pressure increases and muscles tense.

At the same time as our bodies are engaging our fight, flight or freeze response, our quality of judgment and ability to engage complex communication and processing abilities is diminished. We do not have access to our brain processes of logical reasoning and problem solving when we are in that heightened, reactive state. Harper uses the following graphic to illustrate what is happening when we get angry and reactive:

In It’s All Your Fault at Work[2], Bill Eddy and Georgi DiStefano explain some of the brain science behind what happens when we are in reactive mode. They explain that our brains have left and right hemispheres that place an emphasis on different types of thinking or processing. Among other things, the left hemisphere tends to focus on more logical processes and language and the right hemisphere tends to focus on relationships and non-verbal communication. The right brain also pays a lot of attention to whether we are in danger or can relax. That is where our defensive, protective emotions appear to be processed.

During a crisis, our right brain becomes dominant and the right brain’s amygdala shuts down our logical thinking in order to focus exclusively on protecting us with quick action: fight, flight or freeze. The corpus callosum is the part of the brain that allows us to shift from reactive, right brain processing to more logical, left brain processing. In order to regain access to our more complex logical processing, the reactivity in our right hemispheres must be calmed.

Eddy and DiStefano recommend applying a technique called EAR statements to calm an upset person before attempting to engage them in any problem-solving discussion. EAR stands for Empathy, Attention and Respect. The technique can be practiced and used with any upset person to help bring calm to the situation. It can also be effective with people who have difficulties regulating their own emotions. Read more about EAR statements here.

Understanding the realities of what happens in our brains when we feel threatened allows us to strategically manage emotionally-charged situations. In my next post, I’ll share some tips and strategies for doing so.

Shifting how we engage with conflict takes know-how, effort and practice. Talk to us to explore engaging our training, facilitation, coaching, mediation and other services to help to improve how your organization engages with conflict.


[1] Harper, Gary. The Joy of Conflict Resolution. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2004, p. 68-70.

[2] Eddy, Bill and DiStefano, L. Georgi. It’s All Your Fault at Work. New York, USA: Unhooked Books, 2015, p. 27-28.

“Women typically get less staff and less funding, but these negotiation tactics can help”

KIRA VERMOND, SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL

PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2, 2021

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/article-women-typically-get-less-staff-and-less-funding-but-these-negotiation/

Does the prospect of negotiating for resources for your team intimidate you or invigorate you? Are you conscious of gender and equity gaps in influence in your organization? Do you think about negotiation strategically? Is it something you can practice and gain aptitude in or something you are just “not good at?”

I was quoted in this article, which looks at gender bias and negotiation for women leaders in attempting to advocate for increased resources for the teams and departments they oversee. Have a read for some thoughts on negotiation strategy for women and equity-seeking people.

The art of negotiation is one of my favourite topics. I am available to speak to your team about The Art of Negotiation. Contact me to request training workshops.

Want to read more about negotiation?

• Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation Daily Blog: www.pon.harvard.edu/blog/

• Davidds, Y., Your Own Terms: A woman’s guide to taking charge of any negotiation, 2015 AMACOM, New York

• Babcock, L., Laschever, S. Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation – and Positive Strategies for Change, 2007 Bantam Books, New York

• Babcock, L., Laschever, S., Ask For It: How women can use the power of  negotiation to get what they really want, 2008 Bantam Books, New York

The Happy Lawyer Podcast: Illuminating issues of mental health, attrition, and the advancement of women in law

Catherine Shearer chats with  Cherolyn Knapp about all things conflict and conflict resolution including:

  • Why she left private practice for dispute resolution
  • How conflict exists with all relationships
  • Why conflict seems negative
  • The types of conflict personalities
  • How to use conflict resolution skills

This 58 minute episode aired April 30, 2021. Link to the podcast episode here.

For more on The Happy Lawyer podcast, go here.

Is your team ready to manage workplace conflict in the COVID19 new normal?

Do your teams have the skills to deal with conflict at work in the era of COVID-19? This practical, cost-effective half-day workshop will equip your team with tools they can use immediately to handle new types of conflict, reducing stress for your employees and clients alike.

Workers are returning the office, workplaces that had closed are reopening and essential services are settling into a new normal. Employees and clients are anxious about how the new rules will work and whether they will be placed at risk by being back at work or re-engaging as consumers of goods and services in person. Business owners and social service leaders are anxious about maintaining viable business models and funding while supporting their employees.

How will COVID19 affect how people handle conflict at work? How should we handle a clash in values and fears as the rules change? What if people can’t agree? How can we be role models for addressing conflict in a healthy way so that we can focus on getting the work done?

Format:

  • 3-hour workshop; for more detailed lessons and in-depth experiential learning, longer workshops can be arranged
  • Can be tailored for managers and supervisors, departments and teams, or client-facing staff anywhere in Canada
  • Combination of presentation, group discussion and exercises
  • Hosted on Zoom with robust privacy protocols and small group “breakout rooms”
  • Up to 24 participants per session
  • Agencies or businesses may partner to share costs and bring this training to their teams together
  • Call or email for pricing. Volume pricing negotiable based on number of sessions.

Embracing technology during social isolation and COVID-19

As COVID-19 begins to take hold in Canada, social isolation is being advocated for as a mechanism to slow the spread of the virus while scientists work on treatments and vaccines. We can role model effective social isolation by embracing technology to continue our daily work and ensure the economy continues to drive forward.

Traditionally, conflict resolution and investigation work has been done in person. But there are drawbacks. Parties, their representatives and I all have to travel to be in the same place. That takes time and expense. When one person gets held up in traffic, the group has to wait to get started. Parties can have a lot of anxiety about being in the same room together, whereas seeing each other via videoconference can feel less fraught. Online technology such as videoconferencing has evolved to be a very viable tool to meet face-to-face without the time and expense of travel or personal anxieties about in person meetings.

Through the ADR Institute of Canada, I have subscribed to a Zoom account so I can continue meeting with people face to face. I will receive training so I can be adept at using the technology gracefully. Benefits of this technology include encrypted connections and the ability to separate participants into separate meeting rooms for private conversations at the press of a button.

Social isolation does not have to mean stopping the flow of work. Many conflict resolution professionals have offered online dispute resolution (ODR) services for years. Embracing new ways of doing things could demonstrate to the rest of us that the benefits outweigh the detriments.

Contact me by phone 778-966-1357 or email cherolyn@knappresolutions.com to talk more about logistics for conducting your conflict resolution process or workplace investigation via Zoom.

The cost of workplace conflict in a tight labour market

What do labour market statistics have to do with workplace conflict? In August 2019, CBC reported BC’s unemployment rate was the lowest in the country. The lowest unemployment rates for Canadian cities are in Vancouver and Victoria.

Conflict left unaddressed causes more than discontent. When workplace conflict boils over, employees become unfocussed, stressed and even ill. When the day’s work becomes an ordeal in navigating choppy waters, employees aren’t productive, often calling in sick and using spare time to look for another job.

For managers dealing with disharmony on their teams, the temptation may be great to allocate blame, dismiss “the problem employee” without cause and find someone who is a better fit.

What are the costs of turnover in a tight labour market? Whether employees leave on their own or are walked out the door, in BC they are likely to find another post quickly. But what will happen in your workplace? The underlying issues that led to the person’s departure won’t have been dealt with. With unemployment rates. It will take a while to fill the vacant position. Your first and second choice candidates may get snapped up by other employers before you can make an offer. Or you may make an offer an interested candidate only to find out their present employer offered a raise and perks they could not refuse.

In the meantime, your other employees have been shouldering the weight of extra duties for weeks or months and become stressed, ill and unproductive too.  And just when your new employee is finally settled into the workplace, another employee announces their resignation because they find your workplace too stressful.

Leaders in workplaces of all sizes need tools to identify and address conflict on their teams. Ignoring conflict and hoping it goes away can lead to a revolving door of costly employee turnover that can be tough to recover from. Start by recognizing that if you operate in BC, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, investing in effective conflict resolution training and facilitation or mediation in your workplace may be a necessity. Future blog posts will dig further into different ways of addressing workplace conflict.

Introducing Knapp Resolutions

In 15 years as a civil litigation lawyer, I have learned a lot about conflict. I have seen the inside of more disputes than I can count. Whether the parties were business partners, contractors and suppliers, parents and children, siblings, employers and employees, lenders and borrowers, they all felt hurt, stressed and drained by the litigation process. The disputes I dealt with in my law practice were almost always about people and relationships. While there was almost always money in the mix as well, the real crux of the dispute had to do with people’s feelings about something that had happened.

Maybe it was a long term business, family or workplace relationship. Or maybe what you might think of as more of a commercial relationship involving lenders and borrowers or contractors or suppliers. But still, what was really behind the dispute was that something had gone wrong and people didn’t have a way to talk about it effectively or a process to help them to resolve it.

When the problem could not be resolved, the people did what people do – and called a lawyer. And the lawyer did what lawyers do, which is to use the legal process that we have in Canada. Our legal system is designed as an adversarial process in which each side presents its strongest case and a neutral third party makes a decision about who is right. The problem with that system is that most people would prefer a speedy resolution based on a decent amount of good information. Most people don’t need to get to the bottom of exactly what can be proven with evidence on balance of probabilities in order to solve their problem.

Most people want to be able to explain their side of the problem, feel listened to, get a better understanding of what happened and have some help in sorting out a solution. Most people want to negotiate a solution they can live with and feel that there was a fair enough outcome so they can move on with their lives. As a lawyer I had a resolution focus and did my best to work with opposing counsel to craft resolutions that worked for everyone.

Sometimes a Court process is needed – and we are fortunate to have a strong judicial system in Canada. But a lot of the time, especially when the dispute is one between people or businesses, a different conflict resolution process is needed.

After 15 years on one side or the other of those disputes, I am focussing my efforts exclusively as the neutral person who helps people have the conversations they need to have in a process that is designed for their needs to help them solve their problems and move forward. I am passionate about conflict resolution and I am pleased as punch to introduce Knapp Resolutions.

Think a mediator might be able to help your situation? Contact Knapp Resolutions to learn more.