Hot and Cold Conflict in the Office

Conflict happens on the job. Even people who agree on what must be done can have strong disagreements about methods. When resources are scarce or performance pressure is high, you can easily have conflict that boils over. Mark Gerzon, a mediation expert and author of “Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities,” writes in the Harvard Business Review that conflicts can be “hot” or “cold;” the first thing you must do to resolve the issue is take the temperature in the room.

It’s pretty easy to spot a hot conflict. Voices are raised, body language looks aggressive, the tension is palpable. Hot conflicts must be cooled down immediately, so no one says something they can’t take back or worse, escalates to physical confrontation. When anger takes over, the amygdala, the brain’s fight or flight response center, hijacks the frontal cortex, where rational thinking takes place. This surge of emotion can make otherwise likeable, Oscar-winning actors, react in shocking ways with no ability in the moment to consider the consequences.

Whether you’re a manager or a bystander, cooling the temperature of the room is essential. Experts suggest separating the parties to allow for a cooling down period. Without assigning blame or taking sides, insert yourself into the conversation to suggest taking a break. Invite one to take a walk around the block or go to the break room for a cool drink. Tell the group you’ll reconvene in 10 or 15 minutes.

When the group comes back together, the mediator should state the rules of engagement and get consent before allowing the conversation to resume. “I know feelings are running high, but shouting and bullying are not acceptable here. WE have to agree to discuss important issues without allowing personal attacks or threatening body language. Are we agreed on that?”

The mediator can then offer an opportunity for everyone to speak for a limited time, say 2-3 minutes, uninterrupted., suggests Gerzon. Start with a question that gets the conversation going in a productive direction. Something along the lines of “What is the most important consideration for you in this project?” Allowing the parties to state what matters most may even allow them to find common ground and create a path for solutions.

Cold conflicts are not as scary, but they can be more corrosive over time. Gerzon says you can recognize a cold conflict by seeing signs of withdrawal “when one or more parties seem to be suppressing emotions, or actually appear “unemotional,” and are doing one or more of the following: muttering under their breath or pursing their lips; being physically withdrawn or controlled; turning away or otherwise deflecting contact; remaining silent or speaking in a tone that is passively aggressive; appearing shut down or somehow frozen.”

Cold conflicts are unproductive and can last for a long time, because stonewalling and avoidance are sustainable for a lot longer than hot anger. It takes skills to warm up a cold conflict to a productive temperature, Gerzon says, because it’s possible that the parties choose cold conflict precisely because the emotions are too intense to discuss. A mediator has to be prepared for extreme emotions to surface and react with cooling down techniques like the ones above.

Our emotional response to conflict is hard to change because it’s hard-wired into our personalities. We develop our conflict communication style at a very young age in response to conflict with parents, siblings, peers and authority figures. Some people develop the aggressive model of behavior, attacking with anger when they engage in conflict. Others develop a passive method of dealing with conflict, choosing to withdraw and withhold their feelings. And of course, some find passive-aggressive behavior to work for them, hiding their string anger behind moves that on the surface seem passive, even cooperative.

When adults with different conflict styles clash, their frustration with the way the other party is acting may overshadow the actual point of the conflict. A manager or mediator with the skill to get booth parties to an assertive temperature, where both feel empowered to speak and to listen, can help them push through the issue and on toward a viable solution.

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