Evolving From Conflict: 3 Moves That Helped This Board

When people join together to get things accomplished, whether it be as a team working on a project, or board members overseeing activities and the performance of an organization, conflict is likely to arise. While conflicts between board members can sometimes have positive outcomes, by airing new ideas or challenging members to think differently, oftentimes, it has negative consequences. At the heart of these opposing interactions that lead to problems, which then impede a team’s progress, are misunderstandings or miscommunications that produce emotions that lock people up.

Emotion drives our interactions. It literally moves us in a very specific way. Emotion comes from the Latin word, “emovere,” meaning to move. So, it is supposed to move us to action, but it’s fast. When we know how to work with emotion, we can help our team succeed. I will illustrate what this means with an example.

Emotion drives our interactions. It literally moves us in a very specific way. Emotion comes from the Latin word, “emovere,” meaning to move. So, it is supposed to move us to action, but it’s fast. When we know how to work with emotion, we can help our team succeed. I will illustrate what this means with an example.

A Board of Directors of a multi-million dollar enterprise decided to sell a portion of its company. Because of the size of the deal, shareholders’ approval was not required. However, one of the directors, named Tom, demanded that they include shareholders to make the final vote. This created a lot of distress for the rest of the board. Tom and the Board kept going back and forth trying to make their case. Their arguments became so intense that it seemed like they were getting more and more sidetracked into a negative cycle of interaction.

The most common negative cycle starts with one person attacking, criticizing, and judging, becoming angry and impatient. Meanwhile, the other starts to defend, distance, and shut down, becoming withdrawn and disengaged. One starts to push, demanding a response, and the other starts backing off, becoming increasingly disconnected from the rest of the group.

Tom and the Board were getting progressively infused with anxiety, and their communication was quickly turning into an enraged tornado, creating an unsafe environment for everyone.

Whenever the Board would express their fear of losing the deal, it would come out as criticism and blame, which would trigger Tom, pushing him away and shutting him down. The more Tom shut down, the more the Board would get enraged. They were stuck feeling more and more anxious and upset.

When you know how to tune into emotions and understand what it is that you need, you start to send clear, coherent signals to each other and be more effective in your message.

When people get infused with anxiety and fear, it becomes difficult for them to be clear on their message, so they start to send wrong emotional signals that may be misinterpreted and break trust. This further perpetuates the negative cycle, which causes them to view each other as dangerous.

One of the things that the new science of emotional connection tells us is that getting signs of rejection or abandonment from people we depend on is a “danger cue” for our brain. Suddenly, well-functioning adults become agitated in their emotional state and lose their balance. Their body posture changes, and their voice goes up. The minute they start showing these signs, it sends a danger cue to the other person’s base-mammalian brain, which perpetuates the negative cycle.

So Tom and the rest of the Board were definitely disconnected and stuck. Their negative pattern was preventing them from moving forward with the deal. The Board decided to reach out for help.

The following three moves are from the EmC Process. They help team members to reconnect so that they can resolve their conflicts.

Move 1: Stay in the present moment by slowing down the interaction, gathering information, and hearing each person’s view without judgment

This move helps to slow down the emotions that all parties feel heard. This helped Tom and other Board Directors be more clear on what it is that each side needed to feel emotionally safe. Do this several times over and over again to gain clarity and allow individuals to process their emotions.

Move 2: Validate each person’s concerns and fears. 

This is an essential step in creating emotional safety and calming emotions down. No one has to be the “bad guy.” Reframe the blame from individuals to the negative cycle. Acknowledge each person’s concerns to protect credibility as well as the fear behind the content. Make sure to reassure that everyone’s feelings and concerns are valid.

Effective validation creates an alliance, legitimizes people’s experience, and provides a safe way of furthering their exploration of their experience.  Saying something like, “That makes sense” or “Yes, I can see how you would feel this way,” affirms their experience and makes people feel competent and worthy.

Even in the moment of a heated discussion, validating people’s concerns calms emotions down and decreases self-protection in the interaction of distressed individuals. By validating, you can enhance the alliance and recognize that each party is entitled to their experience.

Move 3: Use a calm voice with a facial expression that suggests openness and relaxation. 

This calming effect sends a message to the brain that they are not alone in their experience, and that you get their fear. Once emotions calm down, individuals become clear on what is really happening to them.

In Tom’s case, what really hurt him was not that the Board did not agree with him, it was that his concerns did not matter to them. He felt dismissed, ignored, and demeaned. That triggered a panic response in his base-mammalian brain which prompted his withdrawal and shutdown. In Tom’s view, the answer to the key bonding question, “Do I matter?” was answered with a resounding “No,” and that really hurt his feelings.

Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA points out that when people talk about hurt feelings in attachment relationships, it is not a metaphor. We are bonding, social animals, so hurt feelings literally create the same impact on the brain as stepping on a nail. They are both “danger cues” to the brain.

The same was true for the rest of the Board. When they expressed their concerns about losing the deal, Tom rejected their concerns, sending the message that they didn’t matter, which triggered their brains to react in panic.

Once everyone regained their emotional balance, they were able to consider new options, which made the end result successful, addressing Tom’s concerns and allowing the Board to move forward with the deal. They came up with two votes: The first vote was for the approval of the deal, which was unanimously passed, and the second vote was for doing the deal without the shareholders’ approval which gave Tom a way to abstain.

This option addressed Tom’s need to protect his credibility and the Board’s desire to move forward with the deal without going to shareholders and jeopardizing the deal.

“The most productive teams are the ones that have the greatest harmony and positivity.”– Vanessa Druskat at the University of New Hampshire.

It’s okay to have conflicts and disconnections, it’s how you manage them that makes the difference. A first step in learning how to manage conflicts and disconnections is an awareness of when and how they occur. From there, there are critical moves, as illustrated here, to guide you into taking the right actions to arrive at solutions to these emotionally generated problems. Unlocking the potential of your team is a simple matter of knowing how to work with emotion.

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