At a time of uncertainty and ambiguity in the economic environment, it is not surprising that many of us find ourselves in conflict situations at work. They may arise out of critical decision making – concern about job stability, reduced resources, diminished status, or the reorganisation of our familiar team. Such concern can lead even the most passive of us to react in untypical ways. We may find ourselves in heated discussions with managers and colleagues, we may react to comments and jokes in a negative way or we may enjoy a small gossipy chat from the sidelines. Some of us are, of course, far more comfortable with conflict situations than others. Indeed, some of us may even thrive on them.

The rational cortex of our brain – had it been allowed to kick in – may have told us that it is not advisable to have a strong emotional outburst at work. We need to stop and think about what we’re about to say and do, and how we want our emotions to be displayed at this time. The only problem is that our rational brain isn’t working– quite simply when we have strong emotional reactions to situations and / or people, that important processing isn’t happening and as a result we have reduced cognitive ability. At a time when we need all our cognitive functions to be firing on all cylinders, to be equipped with strategies to help us deal with the complex issues in play, to manage our emotions back down, we are quite simply being less smart.

Thankfully there are many observers in workplaces who can see and sense what may be happening and who can help. They can provide the context needed, pick up on the cues and nuances that may have been missed by the individuals involved in the conflict situation and assist with progressing both short term and longer term resolutions. But how often do we observers intervene constructively and to what extent do our own views on conflict affect how we approach the situation?

Of course much depends upon what “conflict” means to you personally. There is a definition spectrum. Is it a disagreement? An exchange of views? Challenge? Debate? Imposition? Or do some of us think it borders on bullying behaviour?

Our definition is influenced by our individual emotional reactions. Do you walk towards conflict or do you run for the hills – the survival threat response kicking in?

If you witness or hear about a conflict situation, how do you feel? What about that couple at the next table in the restaurant who are progressing from mild bickering to a full scale argument? Do you move your chair a little closer or can you feel your body tense up and your senses heightened? My own family loved debates and my father encouraged me to challenge a different opinion and stick by my own. Others might say that I am too stubborn and don’t listen enough– certainly true. In a recent training session I ran on conflict resolution skills for HR professionals, one individual believed that her cultural and national background influenced her views. She revealed that public demonstrations of conflict were the norm and consequently she felt people were more than comfortable to “put their penny’s worth in” and then walk away, accepting the difference of opinion. Another participant described a childhood whereby a parent became repeatedly upset when they observed conflict situations and this had influenced her own sense of unease around such situations. As an HR professional often tasked with the facilitation and mediation of disputes, she recognised that these experiences needed to be noticed, labelled and navigated around.

The workplace environment is complex – bursting with diverse perspectives and approaches. We need observers to help bring clarity to emotionally charged situations to encourage us to see other perspectives, to listen and value the views and opinions of others. But those observers need to take their roles seriously. A failure to recognise their own reactions to conflict can only inflame situations – that’s not walking towards resolution, that’s just stirring the pot!