When controlling yourself is the most difficult part

Nearly all conflict stems from one necessity — and it isn’t the need to win. Wars, corporate battles, department squabbles and relationship foes are rooted in a deep-seated need to be right. Compound this with an inability to persuade others, and it can generate feelings of inadequacy and, in extreme cases, a feeling of threat. Not only do your emotions run wild, a physical reaction begins — your heart races before a big presentation or your throat tightens as an argument escalates.

The body is preparing itself for fight-or-flight, an immediate physiological reaction in response to a perceived harmful event. This is helpful when an animal is about to trample us. Not so much in the boardroom.

Emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman calls this “an amygdala hijack,” a response out of proportion to the stimulus. The amygdala is the part of our brain that handles emotions. So, how do you keep your self-control, listening, compassion and reason from shutting down when you need them most?

If you remain open, you move more quickly through the phases of conflict: crisis, judge and grudge, investigative and then collaboration. Often, people get trapped in the crisis phase and lose their executive presence.

Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” You can’t manage conflict if you can’t manage yourself in that opportune space first. Try these strategies:

Pay attention to stream of thought.

Be a third-party observer of your thoughts. What are your expectations, judgments, disappointments, comparisons? Are you risk averse, fearing failure, avoiding joy, blaming, complaining? Do you feel guilty, overwhelmed, stressed, discontent? Don’t judge. Allow the thoughts to flow without grasping onto and ruminating over them.

Use the five-second rule.

Count backwards from five. Take a deep breath and acknowledge the uncomfortable feeling. Don’t turn away from it. Naming your discomfort disarms its power. It will likely flow by and not continue to usurp your reason.

‘I bet you feel…’

If you use a “screw you” attitude to hide feelings of helplessness, you’ll get back, “fine, screw you, too.” When you find the courage to say, “I’m not sure I have the answer, but I bet you feel frustrated, too, and I want to work together to make this work” — the other person’s fight-or-flight response may relax.

Execute the P-A-U-S-E.

Pause and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, “What is going on with me?” Untangle the difference between assumptions and the truth. Step back for an un-constricted view. Extend compassion to yourself, and say, “May I be gentle with myself in this moment.” Then extend compassion to others. “May I be curious about his or her needs.”


If the conversation is going nowhere, ask, “If I could demonstrate a more effective or just solution, would you change your mind?” If they say, “Yes,” ask on what specific issue will they meet you in the middle. If they say, “No,” stop wasting your time. They likely have a personal or political agenda.


Mary Lee Gannon, ACC, CAE, is president of MaryLeeGannon.com. Mary is an executive coach who helps busy leaders get off the treadmill to nowhere to be more effective, earn more, be calmer and enjoy connected relationships with the people who matter while it still matters.