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The fact is, confrontation can turn us into someone we don’t like. Blood rushes to our head, our pulse races rapidly, and all of a sudden we blurt out something to a colleague or client we immediately regret.
In the heat of the moment, we become impulsive — on the defense. Remaining calm seems like some faraway utopia — one where everyone acts reasonably.
“At times like this, you might wish you could hit that reset button and have a do-over,” writes Harvard Business Review contributor, Amy Jen Su. But as she also notes “It’s not easy to stay cool and engaged when things get heated in meetings, negotiations, or difficult conversations.”
Some people will avoid confrontation altogether; others will lean into it and make situations far worse. But for entrepreneurs, having a level-headed approach is key for maintaining a harmonious workplace and cultivating positive relationships.
I’ve been CEO of my company, Jotform, for 16 years now. In my early days, I would cower from conflict, choosing avoidance instead. But here’s the thing about growing a business: Confrontation isn’t just a given, it’s a constant. You can only avoid it for so long.
If you’re struggling to keep yourself from erupting in anger and staying calm during conflict, I have some suggestions that have worked for me over the past decade based on research and personal experience.
The art of staying calm in times of confrontation
“Aytekin, what you’re saying just doesn’t make any sense!” My associate, Matt, looked more than a little flustered. We normally saw eye to eye on projects, but this one seemed to push both our buttons. My first reaction was to feel offended and on the defense. Here was a colleague refusing to see my point of view and at the same time, raising his voice.
When I first began my startup, my immediate response would have been to challenge him or over-explain myself. I’ve learned a lot since those initial days.
Now, I understand that staying calm during heated moments isn’t about appeasing the other party just to keep the peace. It’s also not about firmly standing your ground and blurting out something equally offensive.
Believe it or not, the art in staying calm lies primarily in empathy. It took me a long time to grasp this concept. But bear with me: Empathy allows us to humanize the other person so that we can take better stock of the situation.
“Empathy is not about agreement. Nor is it the same as giving in, being passive, or allowing the other person to mistreat you,” writes Jen Su.
She adds: “Recognize as you make more room for emotion that you are actually helping to discharge it. By allowing the other person to vent, you also gain access to other important facts, assumptions, and constraints at play — all critical information for bridging the gap between you and the other person.”
Learn to manage your triggers
Many of us are unaware of when we’re feeling threatened. When we perceive an attack, we’re much more likely to respond irrationally. The key to staying calm during confrontation then, is to recognize our triggers.
Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute explains that there are five main “social threats that act as potential stressors.”
- Feeling like your competence or expertise is being undermined
- Being micromanaged
- Seeing a situation as unfair
In retrospect, I now understand that my associate, Matt, felt like his capabilities and ideas weren’t being taken into account — causing him to lash out.
I, too, have had moments like this. (I believe we all have at some point).
It’s easy to talk about managing our triggers, but the fact remains that it’s easier said than done. To override our impulses, experts recommend pausing or taking a few deep breaths before responding. Even grabbing a glass of water can give you the space needed to give yourself a chance to think things through and have more productive conversations.
Always convey respect
There is not one single person I know who hasn’t said something that at some point they regretted. But according to Jen Su, it’s important that we communicate respect even when faced with disagreement. “The reality is that we are not always going to agree with our colleagues,” she says. “However, disagreement does not have to come with disrespect.”
Some of her recommendations that have been personally helpful to me are using phrases such as:
- “I’ve always valued your judgment and opinions.”
- “In listening to your thoughts, I’m having a hard time getting myself comfortable moving in that direction.”
- “I think we’re having a difference of opinion.”
As I said before, I believe remaining calm in the face of confrontation lies in our ability to empathize. Ultimately, we want to build bridges, not burn them down.
If you end up losing your cool, take ownership of your side of things. Acknowledge shared perspectives and that you’re open to listening more closely. As Jen Su wisely puts it “While we can’t change what’s already happened, we do always have the choice to reach out, connect with others, and demonstrate a more constructive and committed ‘Take 2.’”
I can’t travel back through time and take back my exchange with Matt, but I make it a point now to put all of the above strategies into practice. Not only has it strengthened my relationships at work and at home, it also reminds me that as leaders, we need to be humble and conscientious when it comes to all of our interactions.
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