Strong emotions are both a cause of, and a result of conflict. People in conflict may have a variety of strong, and often negative emotions–anger, distrust, disappointment, frustration, confusion, worry, or fear. These emotions often mask the substantive issues in dispute. However, the emotions, too, are real and must be dealt with. Techniques for managing emotions include the following. (Many of these are taken from Fisher, Ury, and Patton, 1991, while others come from our own experience.)
1) Recognize and understand your own emotions as well as your opponents’. For instance, is your opponent angry, or just excited? Are you slightly worried, or profoundly afraid?
2) Determine the source of the feelings. Are your (or your opponent’s) emotional responses to one issue being caused by your (or their) response to another issue? Is your (or their) anger or distrust caused by a bad experience in the past, rather than something that is occurring now?
3) Talk about feelings–yours and your opponents’. Don’t suppress them, or deny them–acknowledge them and deal with them directly.
4) Express your own feelings in a non-confrontational way. This can be done, for example, by using I-messages, where you say “I feel/felt angry because. . .” rather than “You made me angry by. . .” The first approach explains your feelings without accusing anyone else, while the second focuses blame on the opponent who is likely to become hostile or defensive in response.
5) Acknowledge your opponents’ feelings as legitimate. Although you may feel differently about a situation, your opponents’ feelings are real, and denying their existence or validity is just likely to intensify those feelings. Allowing them to be expressed and recognized helps release those feelings, so that you can move on to deal with the substantive issues in dispute.
6) Do not react emotionally to emotional outbursts. You should acknowledge the outburst with active listening (which shows that you understand the strength of the speaker’s feelings), but you should not react emotionally yourself, as that will likely escalate the emotions and the conflict as a whole. If you are having trouble staying calm, temporarily leave the room. Ury (1991) suggests “going to the balcony”-a metaphor for stepping out of the room into some actual and psychological “fresh air.” By leaving the scene you have a chance to calm down and think. You can then plan an effective response, rather than reacting automatically, which often makes the situation worse.