Why do we get mad in conflict? It usually happens because of the way we think about the situation. Although we think that another person’s actions are what cause us to be angry, it really is the way we interpret their actions that is at the heart of the matter.
Several approaches help confirm this observation. First, have you ever found your upset over something someone said or did only to find out later that you had misinterpreted things. It is easy to get frustrated, for example, by a comment in an email and then discover that the sender had an entirely different intention. When you discover the mistake do you still feel the same level of anger towards the other person – usually not. The way you have thought about the matter has changes and so have your emotions.
In another context have you ever been in a situation where a certain person acts in a certain way that upsets you but not others. Perhaps you get upset because your boss micro-manages you but a colleague actually enjoys the careful attention paid to his work. A friend might get bothered when someone fails to show appreciation but you don’t get worried about it. People often have different hot buttons and it is in part the way they view the situation as well as values they may hold that affect whether or not they experience negative reactions to specific behaviors.
So, if emotions are closely tied to the way we think about events or behaviors, then it stands to reason if we are able to change our interpretations then we might be able to affect our emotions. If fact, research has found this is precisely the case. Studies by Professors Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University and John Gross of Stanford have shown that cognitive reappraisal, a fancy name for reinterpreting how you see a situation, can change your brain function and lessen negative emotions.[i]
From a practical standpoint, how can you use reappraisal in a conflict setting? Let’s say that you are upset about something someone said to you or about some action they have taken. The first thing to do is to ask yourself whether you have all the facts about the matter and if you are missing some of the facts, then work on discovering them. Once you have them, then in becomes important to consider whether there is some other way of interpreting the facts that doesn’t involve a hostile or negative intention on the part of the other person.
If someone is late to a meeting, is it because they are careless and don’t respect the value of your time? Or might it have been because there was a major traffic jam that caused them and hundreds of other people to be late? In situations where this is the other person’s “first offense” it can be easier to give them the benefit of the doubt. When there is negative history with the other, it becomes much harder to look for non-hostile intent.
In the end you may still find out that the other person has truly done something wrong that was meant to cause you problems. There may be real reasons to be angry at them. Yet, if you want to be able to manage your own conflict emotions, the use of reappraisal can help calm you down. Once you have achieve emotional balance, you will be better able to respond to the conflict in constructive manners that will help you achieve more effective outcomes – even if the other person is in the wrong.