Many of our most difficult conflicts are laden with emotion: doubt, fear, anger, powerlessness, and more. We see or hear something, we experience a negative emotion, and then we often act on that emotion. Our path to action may be thought of as:
Think of a conflict you may be experiencing. For example, the PI in your lab has taken you off the project on which you've been working for months, seeing real progress, and assigns it to someone else. That could understandably lead you to some negative emotions, which could then impact how you respond.
But how do we get to these emotions? Can we instead reach a point of rethinking our emotions to then put us back in control of how we manage the conflict?
In these situations I sometimes reflect on the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. The authors suggest that the above path to action is actually missing a key step, that we don't simply go from an experience to an emotion, and our response. Instead, as we have an experience we tell ourselves a story to make meaning of the experience. In a conflict with another, the story we tell ourselves adds meaning to help us make sense of what happened. And often in conflict situations, this story includes adding judgment or motive to the experience.
The chain of events looks like this:
Experience—Tell a Story—Emotion—Action
In the example above, you will inevitably (perhaps even without realizing it) tell yourself a story to understand the situation. Perhaps you believe that your PI devalues your work, or does not believe you are committed to the project. This story can then lead to emotions that impact the way you respond to the conflict. And needless to say, the actions you take may not make the situation better.
But the reality is that the story you tell yourself is just one valid way to understand the situation. Other stories, equally valid, could lead to different sets of emotions and different actions. The authors suggest that taking the time to consider other stories may provide you with the space you need to have a more open conversation about the conflict while keeping some of the more-toxic emotions at bay.
Noticing our emotions, and pausing to consider why we are experiencing them in a given situation, can be a key to a healthier approach to conflict. For more, check out Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler.
If you are experiencing a conflict in which emotion seems to be playing a significant role and you would like to discuss it further, consider setting up an appointment with Ombudsman Tom Lehker:
6015 Fleming Administration Building
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