You will, from time to time, encounter exasperating, difficult situations that may escalate to conflicts.
In these cases, avoid brooding or internalizing things. Instead, here's how you can coolly face conflict (in person or online)—and avoid confrontations or outbursts that can be damaging to others and yourself:
1. Identify your pet peeves
Be aware of types of behaviours or events that have historically irked you. This way, you can take steps to dodge them (e.g. smugness) or learn to live with ones beyond your control (e.g. unruly driving).
You may also be annoyed when people or things don’t meet your expectations. You think the other person should know or can do better. Maybe you’re right, but maybe that person’s not ready yet.
2. Know how you react when you're ticked off
Much can happen in an unguarded moment. Recognizing the signs that you're about to lose your cool—maybe it's gritting your teeth or feeling your face heating up—can actually help you keep it.
3. Forecast the conflict—and plan your response
If the situation is something you can’t easily evade (e.g. encounters with probing relatives or blunt bosses), expect what you’ll hear, install a firewall, and prepare a calm response. Some situations:
Unwanted (personal) questions
I’ve tried “I’m not comfortable answering that,” only to be thrown “Why’s that?” So, I found alternative maneuvers for ending the interrogation:
- Answer briefly with general promises, e.g. “If there are new developments, I’ll make sure you’re the first to know.”
- Or, terminate politely, hinting at a follow-up, e.g. “I want more time to really think about this topic. Hang tight. I will get back to you.”
Voice gratitude towards the feedback, and indicate reception, e.g. “Thanks for the insight. I’ll keep that in mind from now on.”
4. Keep an eye on your daily emotions
Similar to managing stress, you can raise your boiling point by regulating your emotions and preventing them from accumulating. Experiment with ways to release steam such as journaling, meditation, or exercise.
But what if you’re already in a conflict?
5. Pause—right away
Don’t immediately parry. Give yourself time to breathe and think about what you were just about to say or do—and the consequences. Is it worth it to snap back? Will it come back to bite you later? If you know you’ll probably lose your cool, don’t respond.
If you can, excuse yourself and let the other person know that you would like to approach the issue on a later date. If you can't exactly extract yourself from the situation, try out the following tips:
6. Reframe in a positive light
Consider that maybe the other person bears good intentions, is reacting in the heat of the moment, or is just doing what’s asked (e.g. a job).
Reframe their attitude with positive connotations (e.g. not bossy, but assertive). Another way is to fictionalize their behaviours (e.g. a hostile cashier is reanimating an audition for a Disney villain or a spot in Britney’s “Toxic” music video).
7. Try to be humourous
When a waiter dropped a tray of drinks on her, Angela Merkel smiled modestly, tossed her hair, and even raised her glass—she calmly diverted what would’ve been a confrontation. Humour helps lessen the tension. In non-serious situations, conjure a genuine smile; laugh it off. (Massage your face later.)
8. Detach from the heat of the situation
Staying composed doesn’t meaning treating the other person with levity—show that you're listening respectfully, but emotionally distance yourself from the situation if you can.
What can help: taking a deep breath, counting up or down, or, if you’re like me, translating the other person’s words into another language (it's weirdly calming).
Often, it’s how you respond to your emotions, whether in your words or behaviour, that can be destructive—not the emotions themselves.
You can’t change others, but you can change yourself—and the way you face conflicts. Next up, the Emotional Intelligence series finale: not just being calm in conflicts, but stepping up to resolve them.
In the event that you do lose your cool (big hug—it happens), here's how to apologize effectively.
*Sources that informed this post: 3 Tricks For Keeping Your Cool In Tough Meetings, 3 Ways to Stay Calm When Conversations Get Intense, and 5 Ways to Keep Your Cool in Stressful Work Situations.