You are walking away at the end of the argument. Your hands are shaky and clammy.
Or you are walking from your lawyer's office or a mediation session. Although you reached a settlement, you are tired and wired. It has not sunk in yet: this battle is almost done.
Or the arbitrator's decision is sitting unopened in your e-mail inbox. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and your throat closes as you reach for the mouse.
Or, for that matter, you are sitting sullenly across the table from your spouse after exhausting all words. You avoid eye contact, concerned that the fight might start back up even though you are no longer sure what sparked it.
People become attached to conflict. It does not matter who you are, or whether you are fighting on behalf of yourself or your organization. As a conflict is prolonged, people repeat and rehearse the story over and over again in their minds. When it is time to move on, it can be hard to disengage.
At the same time, the stress of conflict manifests itself physically. Cortisol and adrenaline are flowing through your veins; muscles are tensed in your shoulders or wherever else in your body you store tension; and the sheen of sweat on your face visibly thickens as the day goes on. Left alone, all this is poisonous: it can be unpleasant and seriously affect work performance or even daily life after the conflict is done. Addressing conflict poison is not touchy-feely or new-agey. It's practical.
So what can you do? Here are some suggestions:
- At an immediately practical level, even though the moment of most intense conflict has passed, the final resolution may require you to take affirmative steps. These steps may include working with attorneys on settlement documentation, figuring out how to come up with a payment you are not happy about making, managing internal repercussions within your organization or with a spouse or reorganizing your schedule to meet new responsibilities. These activities are vital on two levels, both doing what you need to do to complete the resolution process and, psychologically, transitioning away from conflict.
- Get the conflict out of your body. Exercise, lots of fluids to wash the toxins away, getting a massage, doing yoga or taiji, meditating if that is your thing – before you have that drink! Although our built-in response to conflict is fight, flight or freeze, in the kind of conflicts you are likely to find yourself the chemistry of that response is not helpful for refocusing once the conflict is done. Get that stuff out of your system or it may stick with you and slow down the process of moving on.
- Look forward, not backward. People often tend to ruminate about the past. Now is the time to answer the mediator’s question about what life looks like after the conflict – whether it is in your personal or professional life. Act consciously. Managers should seek new responsibilities; those in less authority should wrap up their involvement and move on to the next project; individual disputants should seek out personal interactions in which the conflict is not the main topic of conversation. You know what to do. In time you will stop thinking about how things might have turned out.
Start planning beforehand: how are you going to put on the brakes so you can go forward?