Mastering Your Emotions in Conflict Resolution

Mastering Your Emotions

Chances are if you’ve participated in any form of dispute resolution, there has been a point where you or someone working with you has suggested that you master your emotions in conflict. The suggestion is much easier said than done, as emotions are strong and can often feel overwhelming and uncontrollable.  And in many circumstances, feeling and acknowledging emotions is healthy for people to do.

However, in certain situations, especially situations involving dispute resolution, it is best if you have control over your emotions to not react strongly to what is happening around you. Emotions interfere with our ability to identify and maintain focus on the issue during conflict. Being able to keep our focus on rational thought while also experiencing strong emotions or negative emotions can seem like a superhuman feat. Luckily, we are able to train ourselves to shift from our emotional impulses to rational problem-solving and keep the conversations and communications, issue-focused during the conflict.

This article will examine the idea of mastering emotions and emotional triggers and how they relate to dispute resolution and conflict management.  First, it will explain what it means to master your emotions, emotional triggers, and how emotions and conflict are connected.  Next, the article will address how emotions can and need to be used in problem-solving and dispute-resolution processes.  Finally, the article will outline some tips for dealing with strong emotions when in conflict and general conflict management.

Mastering Emotions: The Connection Between Emotions and Conflict

When people consider mastering their emotions, there is often an element of suppressing or ignoring their emotional state.  However, this is an unhealthy control or mastery over emotions. Mastering emotions does not include ignoring them.  Instead, it includes understanding the emotional state and emotions properly, discovering the driving force behind them, and knowing how to deal with and respond to each.  It also means that the feelings are felt and acknowledged in a way that informs us in our conflict management and overall problem-solving.

It is nearly impossible to resolve conflict without recognizing and understanding the emotions at play and how they are affecting the situation.

Many people believe that emotions have no place in dispute resolution because resolutions require astute reason and logic to accomplish.  However, emotions often play a large role in conflict resolution, even if they are not presented in overt ways.  Emotions will affect how people see their relationship with the counterparty, how the parties sense one another, and the status that they hold in the room.  It shapes the way parties will view their dispute.

Additionally, the emotional state can quickly turn as the parties disagree that some emotions are influencing and interfering and can lead to a full-blown dispute.  Emotions will erupt when parties feel that they are excelling in the negotiation or when they feel as if they are failing.

Most emotions carry a message about how our bodies are responding to a current situation.  Being aware of how emotions feel and what they tell us about our response can be a helpful skill to carry into any high-stress situation that will likely bring up emotions—such as a dispute or conflict resolution.  These messages alert us to our comfortability surrounding an offer or suggestion, as well as whether there are underlying interests that we are not aware of that have significant influence over the way that we are negotiating, even causing us to bargain against ourselves to protect those interests.

Mastering your emotions means the ability to identify an emotion, control the display of the emotion when needed, and understand what the feeling is telling us as we move forward. Conflict management requires mastery over not only your own emotions but others as well.

A Note about Classifying Emotions:

An important consideration when discussing emotions is how people classify emotions.  Often certain emotions are labeled “good” or “bad” based on the ways a person presents that emotion.  However, because emotions inform us about our reactions and the situation around us, as well as help resolve conflict, we mustn’t view emotions are good or bad only because of the ways the emotions are expressed.  Every emotion can be expressed in ways that are healthy for a person and ways that are unhealthy for a person.  Additionally, emotions will look different for each person, even their version of strong emotion will differ from the next person’s.

For these reasons, this article will defer to using the term “big emotions” when referring to emotions that present themselves in large ways and are harder to control.  This can be crying, yelling, disassociation, or other forms of emotions.  On the other side, this article will use “small emotions” when referring to emotions where the presentation is more reserved.  This can be a smile, anxious fidgeting, or other smaller reactions.

Using Emotions in Dispute Resolution:

Another important aspect of the intersection of emotions and conflict resolution is the role of emotions and how they impact conflict resolution.  Understanding when emotions may be useful for conflict resolution will help both the parties and the neutral to achieve the best result for everyone.  Most of the original training materials for conflict resolution encourage the parties and the neutral to ignore and suppress emotions to forge ahead using reason and their minds to achieve an outcome.

This encourages a push toward rationality over subjectivism.  However, because alternative dispute resolution is used to encourage parties to find the solution that works for them, it would follow that subjective decision would benefit the parties along with rationality.

When we consider big emotions, especially anger, and fear, it is clear that these emotions will influence the ways that parties will negotiate and settle a dispute.  Additionally, if there are certain types of emotions clouding the judgment of one of the parties, such as jealousy or harm, they will not be able to settle until that emotion is acknowledged and dealt with.

The parties will not be able to reach the substantive issues of the dispute if there are emotions that need to be addressed at the beginning.   Therefore, these emotions will need to be acknowledged by both sides and allowed to be expressed.  The receiving party will also need to be careful to not react with anger or other big emotions.

Navigating Emotions in Dispute Resolution

The key to successful dispute resolution is recognizing and responding to emotions of any size appropriately.  There are tips that both parties and neutrals can implement to encourage everyone to move through any emotions that pop up healthily and productively.  Some of these tips include:

  • Storytelling: Often, when one or both of the parties has suffered a traumatic experience, they will shield emotions to protect themselves or will express emotions in ways that may hinder the process.  One technique to help parties acknowledge the emotions that are the result of the trauma is to engage in storytelling.  This allows the parties to tell the story, including the emotions of each moment, surrounding the conflict.  This allows the party telling the story to feel and acknowledge the emotions and the other party to acknowledge the pain they caused.
  • Active Listening: Another technique that can be helpful is the use of effective listening, where the non-speaking party engages in extra listening behavior to make the speaking party feel heard.  This can be nonverbal eye contact and nodding, or it can be repeating or paraphrasing statements back to the speaking party.  Doing so helps reassure parties that they are being heard.
  • Emotional Reframing: This technique allows the parties to see an accurate picture of the negotiations and not react based solely on how they feel the talks are going.  This technique encourages dialogue about how the parties perceive the negotiation and encourages the parties to see a full and real picture, considering what the other parties are feeling as well.
  • Appreciative Inquiry: Appreciative inquiry is a great accompaniment to any of the tips mentioned above.  This technique encourages the parties to collect positive stories and put energy into what is best for the group as a whole first.  This encourages empathy and allows the parties to work toward a common goal.
  • I Statements: The use of I statements to curb anger from causing a breakdown in communication can be incredibly helpful when emotions are close to or already running wild.  It allows the parties to express their emotions in a non-confrontational way, which also helps stop the opposing party from reacting strongly to the statement.


Emotions are a large part of life, and they often control how a person goes through life and makes decisions.  Emotions are often present in conflict resolution and should be appropriately acknowledged to allow the parties to heal from their emotional divides and move toward a solution together.  Managing emotions does not mean ignoring or sidelining emotions, but it does require the skill to identify and address an emotion as it comes up.  When emotions are dealt with productively, the parties will leave the table free and ready to tackle the next obstacle.

To learn more about mastering emotions in conflict, conflict resolution, and more, check our ADR Times arsenal of resources!

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