Uncoiling Conflict Towards Greater Safety

There sure seems to be lots of conflict around, both in communities and workplaces. You’ve likely seen some of the stories and statistics displaying the many types, levels and expressions of conflict, ranging from declared distrust, called-out disillusionment, disengagement, abrupt quitting and other more severe actions.

Conflicts often ramp up the anger spectrum. When overly elevated, anger can emotionally blind almost anyone and potentially take them into the jagged “I shouldn’t have let myself go there” terrain. Beyond risking relationships, conflict-fueled raging can endanger personal safety, not only from encounters between people but also from someone “seeing red” and then making overly risky decisions they might not have if they were cooler and calmer. How many times have you seen someone getting injured from reacting out of anger or becoming so distracted they miss a looming and obvious hazard (like a moving object, something they could have walked around or more)?

I try to keep in mind that self-control is a major key to personal safety, and conflict that leads to distraction or anger pulls at, and can even strip away, self-control.

There’s a lot written about psychological safety, perhaps fitting in times of too-frequent social media bullying, or where some conflate “strong” leadership with winning at all costs through threat and intimidation. Think of conflict like a spring. When compressed under pressure, it can suddenly explode, sometimes releasing enough force to cause serious damage. Not surprisingly, springs are actually key components in firearms’ mechanisms. According to Assembly Magazine, “There can be as many as 20 springs in a typical weapon. These may include compression springs to resist applied compression forces or to store energy for pushing. Helical extension springs to store energy and exert a pulling force.”

One key to de-escalating conflicts is to develop and practice de-cocking mechanisms, as in moving at least a step away from letting yourself be triggered into a regrettable action to which there’s no undo key to press. One aspect of this lies with us individually assuming self-control, perhaps by remembering to give ourselves a time out when anger mounts (e.g. going to the restroom or delaying confrontation). Maybe take some deep breaths, count to a pre-chosen number before acting or drop your shoulders and bend your knees to unstiffen, making it less likely to act woodenly, or try another way to retake control of the wildfire reactions that might otherwise consume—and possibly endanger—your relationships, physical being or even career.

Counter-thought: Conflict is energy. Bear in mind that well-managed conflicts can inspire creative solutions, help acid-test proposed plans and even unleash positive energy that brings people closer together. Per Gordon Lippitt: “Conflict releases energy at every level of human affairs, energy that can produce positive, constructive results...The goal is not to eliminate conflict, but to use it, to turn the released energy to good advantage.”

Learn and practice better conflict control methods you can use anywhere. Start by focusing on controlling yourself, not attempting to manipulate others. Here are a few practical methods I’ve worked with many times to prevent conflicts (even potentially physical ones) from escalating into unsafe zones. 

1. Remember the conflict-energy curve. Conflicts are typically marked by energy rising, peaking, releasing and then lowering, like a bell curve. My objective? Notice the heat intensifying at lower levels and make sure to not purposely or inadvertently throw more fuel on the flame. I can also enlist movement, breathing, changing posture or other means to release conflict’s pre-peaking energy.

2. “Untarget” yourself. A great technique in early conflict situations is to not be another’s target. Think of two types of conflicts: role (they’re attacking your role, as leader or boss) and personal (coming at you as an individual). When confronted in your role (“You’re just like all other managers, only concerned with numbers”), consider responding personally (“I’ve had similar feelings about some things”). When attacked personally (“You never listen to me.”), consider answering in your role (“I understand. But we safety professionals are limited in what we have power to do/can pass up to others. Can I update you on progress of your concern?”).

3. Focus effectively. Lippitt wrote: “Look at the issues involved coldly and at the people involved warmly.”

4. Watch your timing. Don’t try to rationally convince someone they shouldn’t be angry. This often fans their flames. Don’t attempt to problem-solve when their energy is too high and they’re just seeing red. My objective is to help lower the energy so they and I are both more receptive and ready to deal more rationally with a problem.

5. Carefully monitor another’s “motorset.” When they reach their first trigger/very edge, hold their breath, are rigid, reared up or just ready to explode, the best thing to do is nothing. Don’t try to make the other person do or say anything, not even agree or discuss, and don’t make sudden movements. Instead, focus on controlling yourself, breathing out and relaxing your posture and eye contact so you don’t appear to be in a stare-down. Too often, conflicts escalate because one or both parties are afraid they’ll look weak if they back down, and then frequently, avoidable blowups needlessly ensue. It takes two to tango; if you’re less likely to add energy to a budding conflict, the other is less likely to go over the edge toward exploding.

Obviously, there’s a lot to this, but what I’ve written is practical; I’ve applied these numerous times and they almost always work.

Above all, conflicts have the potential for either morphing into safety problems, even incidents, or into generating energy and ideas to bring people together for better solutions. How leaders manage conflict can dramatically move towards greater safety in many ways. 

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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