The best conflict resolution and communication skills aren’t very useful if we can’t access them when we need them most. We disagree better when emotional agility helps us maintain or regain our equilibrium during stressful interactions.
Emotional agility is the capacity to regard our emotions as information and to use that information to respond in ways that are in alignment with who and how we want to be in the world and in the present circumstances.
Between the stimulus and the response is our greatest power—we have the freedom to choose our response.STEPHEN COVEY
When we are emotionally agile in conflict situations we are able to regard our emotions — and the thoughts that accompany them — as messengers signaling that something important to us is feeling thwarted. This way of viewing our experience helps us avoid being swamped by our emotions so that we can disagree better.
1. Identify what hooks you
In my 2014 book, The Conflict Pivot, I coined the term “conflict hook” to describe a natural part of our identity that becomes snagged, like a fish on a line, during conflict. This happens when something important to us feels thwarted or we perceive an insult to the way we see ourselves (and want others to see us) in the world.
An important aspect of emotional agility is self-knowledge about our conflict hooks and developing the self-awareness to recognize when we’re hooked. Try these practices to identify and work with your conflict hooks:
- Identify the conflict hooks that tend to snag you the most. Read this overview of conflict hooks to start thinking about what hooks you.
- See if there’s a pattern to what hooks you. Many of us have 1-2 dominant conflict hooks. Use the free downloadable Conflict Pivot Worksheet (available in English, French, and Spanish) to explore patterns; think of 2-3 different conflict scenarios and fill out the worksheet for each one.
- Practice noticing when you’re hooked.
2. Create psychological distance
Psychological distance is the mental distance you create by briefly detaching from what you’re experiencing and stepping outside yourself in your mind’s eye. “Self-distancing” behaviors help calm internal chatter, reduce impulsiveness, and help us steer clear of “self-immersive” behaviors (focusing on hurt and anger), which tend to amplify anger and aggression.
Try these psychological distancing practices to be more emotionally agile during conflict:
- Label your strong emotion. Known as “affect labeling,” the practice is well-supported by research to dampen the effect of unwelcome emotions.
- Develop a centering question for yourself. Use it on yourself when you’re feeling swept up by a strong emotion during disagreement.
- Practice prospection. Picture yourself a year from now, looking back on this moment. Silently describe to yourself how you feel about the argument, as you look back at it.
3. Seek the message that’s struggling to be heard
Emotional agility enables us to view our thoughts and emotions as messengers by giving us the emotional space to discern and act on the message.
Try these practices to discover the message that’s struggling to be heard:
- Make a habit of the 7-minute review. Developed for use with partners and spouses, it is a cognitive reappraisal tool I also recommend for use with family members, friends, and colleagues.
- Explore the three threads at the heart of every argument.
- Tunnel beneath the trivial. If you’ve “over-reacted” to something that seems trivial, take a closer look. There’s something there.
- Coach yourself with QueryCards for greater insight.
4. Build capacity over time
Increase your emotional agility by starting small and building capacity over time:
- Decide who you will be. Use an identity-based habit to keep you motivated as you shift old habits into more emotionally agile habits.
- Don’t avoid small fights. Build “muscle memory” for the above practices by trying and refining in low-stakes moments.
More from Tammy about emotional agility
- Workshops and presentations: I have been teaching online and in-person seminars and courses about conflict hooks and emotional agility since 1999 and welcome your inquiry about a workshop for your organization or group.
- The Disagree Better Dispatch: For nearly 25 years, I’ve written a newsletter about emotional agility and other essential conflict resolution skills and habits. Subscribe here.
Find my past articles about emotional agility and conflict here:
- Stop rehearsing your stuck story
- How to deal with stonewalling in a relationship at work or home
- A question to help ease suffering during conflict
- Ask this simple question to help regulate emotions
- An uncomplicated mindfulness technique for managing the urge to lash out
- Anger resets
- The non-comeback comeback after an insult
- Introducing QueryCards
- Three alternatives to rumination after an argument
- An uncomplicated way to reduce the pitfalls of emotional memories during conflict resolution
- How to stop ruminating at night (other times too)
- De-escalate anger with this straightforward invitation
- A way to turn anger into curiosity
- Ask yourself this kind of question when an argument rattles you
- Fighting in a relationship: The gift of anger
- You make me so angry!
- 4 quick techniques to help you think straight in an argument
- Anxiety about a difficult conversation? Try this.
- A super simple method for regaining self-control
- Want someone to calm down? Don’t do this
- Want more self-control during conflict? Try appealing to your future self
- The real message anger is trying to deliver
- The art of dealing with insults
- 5 uncomplicated ways to gain psychological distance during conflict (and why you should)
- The secret to de-escalating loud, angry conflict
- 9 ways to defeat cognitive overload during conflict resolution
- Sleep, conflict, and self-control
- Just be reasonable
- The primal roots of blame, defensiveness, and reactivity
- Willpower and managing emotions during conflict
- New online conflict resolution course: Calm, Cool, and Collected
- Mastering your inner game
- Trigger stacking
- Are you paying twice in a conflict?
- The venting myth
- Getting unhooked from interpersonal conflict
- Don’t take it personally. Really?
- Shining a light on our conflict stories
- Control anger during conflict with this technique
- Your conflict resolution magic wand
- Stay calm in conflict, Felix Baumgartner style
- Introducing the conflict pivot
- Conflict behavior change without the fallout
- 7 questions for letting go of anger during conflict
- Letting go of unresolved conflict and your anger about it
- Do you recognize these 7 early warning signs of getting hooked by a conflict?
- Dealing with anger at work: Co-workers and bosses hold the key to transforming anger
- Venting anger: A habit to break
- Is your inner lizard getting you into conflict?
- Fred and Ed: A story about runaway thoughts
- A quick deep breathing exercise for calming yourself
- Why motivation matters if you want to change conflict behavior
- Kick the criticism habit
- Cultivating a non-anxious presence during difficult conversations
- Letting go of unresolved conflict
- Anger management along a muddy road
- A simple meditation for tense and stressful moments
- 3 simple tricks to calm down during disagreements
- Conflict zen and managing your hot buttons
- Letting go of anger, resentment and grudges
- Beware the conflict replay
- For women, more options than fight or flight
- What are your conflict hooks?
- Conflict hack: Buying time to cool down
- How to let go of unresolved conflict
- Cooling holiday hotheads: Television stars confront their triggers
- 5 simple ways to keep your cool in conflict
- Thinking through the noise: how to clear your head during conflict
- Conflict hack: Take a real break
- The 7 fears of confronting conflict
- Conflict behavior and leadership effectiveness