Strategies to Control Your Emotions During a Team Conflict

Kelsey Greenwood  |  January 12, 2024
last updated

When conflict happens, the body has an external and internal experience. On the outside, your heart rate increases, your face and chest may get warm, and your breathing tends to quicken. This is connected to a broader stress response system built in the body. It is designed to prepare you to deal with perceived threats or challenges. This physical response can cause us to react without much forethought, saying and doing things we may later regret. We also have an internal experience of thoughts, feelings, and memories that can be provoked by a situation. This can make the conflict worse as you struggle to control your emotions.

If you want to prevent conflict from worsening, you can practice self-awareness around your body’s external and internal responses. Having awareness equips you with the tools to respond with emotional maturity. Developing emotional maturity also makes dealing with conflict much easier (and leads to more effective solutions for all involved).

Reacting off emotion disempowers you because you are letting your emotions control you. Responding with emotional maturity empowers you because you control your emotions. Self-reflection is the difference between a zoomed-in photo and a panoramic view. When you step back to view the whole picture, it allows you to see all the possibilities before reacting.

Self-reflection is the power of the pause. This blog includes specific strategies with tips to help you self-reflect, increase your emotional maturity, and navigate team conflict with more awareness and control. 

Conflict Can Cause Strong Emotions. Focus on Deep Breathing to Calm Your Mind and Prevent an Emotional Reaction.

Deep breathing sounds like a simple tip. But don’t mistake simple for unimportant. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, our breath tends to shorten and feel restrictive. This perpetuates the body’s stress response, causing further emotional dysregulation. In turn, it becomes difficult to control your emotions.

Slowing down and deepening your breath is a quick and easy way to calm down when intense emotions rise. This will help you navigate stressful situations and overwhelming emotions with more ease.

Breathing is Your (Healthy) Quick Fix

I remember commuting in Atlanta rush-hour traffic five days a week. My 45-minute commute would take an hour and a half (to and from).

I was on my typical route home after another long and unfulfilling workday that had somehow become my new daily life. The stress of another day in standstill traffic flooded my body with cortisol and agitation. I was sitting in the driver’s seat, antsy and squirming to find comfort against the negative thoughts. But what I really wanted to do was scream and abandon ship for the nth time this week.

I was listening to a podcast to pass the time when I heard the host talk about a breathing technique to ease stress and live in the present moment. “Why not give it a try?” I thought. I didn’t have anything better to do.

There I was, painfully watching my GPS add minutes to my commute home. As I was on the verge of losing my marbles, I decided to focus on my breath instead.

The technique was to inhale for three seconds, hold for three seconds, and slowly release the breath completely.

I did it once, then repeated the sequence a couple more times. Within 60 seconds, I noticed a change. You heard me right… 60 seconds! That’s all it took. I felt a sense of calm wash over my body. I relaxed in a way that felt like my first exhale all week. The tension in my shoulders dropped, and the stress of my mind began to ease. It was helping.

Deep breathing is a healthy emotional regulation skill to have, and it goes a long way in helping to control your emotions. Being able to pause, breathe, and then respond (especially in the midst of strong feelings) is a sign of emotional intelligence.

Emotions are Energy in Motion 

Strong emotions don’t just “go away.” The word “emotion” comes from the Latin word “Emovere,” which means “to move.” So, quite literally, emotion (or e-motion) is the moving of energy.

When we repeatedly ignore or bottle up our own emotions, like anger, fear, and shame, these negative emotions get stuck in the body. That’s what causes resentment and anxiety to build (which can cause emotional reactions, mood swings, and mental health conditions).

In the wise words of Albert Einstein, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be changed from one form to another.” A healthy way to change (or move through the discomfort) of difficult emotions is by deep breathing.

The state of your breath can indicate your emotional state. For example, shallow, rapid breathing (having a hard time catching your breath) can indicate stress and anxiety. Slow, deep, and regular breathing can indicate ease and contentment. Rapid breathing that can still access deeper breaths can indicate excitement and other positive emotions.

In conflict, create emotional awareness by checking in with the state of your breath. Some questions you can ask yourself to become aware of your emotional state:

  1. What is the pace of my breath right now? Short? Fast? Moderate? Calm?
  2. Am I breathing from my chest? Or am I breathing from my belly?
  3. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being calm, 10 being discontent), how do I feel right now?

Once you become aware of your breath (through observation), you can better control your emotions. In turn, that allows you to consciously prevent an unreasonable (or possibly regretful) reaction. It can help you better express emotions, reduce feelings of anger, and prevent emotional outbursts.  

The technique I shared above is a great practice to start with (inhale for three seconds, hold for three seconds, exhale completely. Then repeat two more times).

Your Breath is Your Built-In Human Superpower

Next time you feel anxious, triggered, or angry in a situation, try to practice deep breathing. The goal is to change the energy from being reactive (anger/ anxiety) to being responsive (calm/centered). Slow it down by creating deeper inhales and deeper exhales. When you gain control of your breath, you gain control of your emotions.

Disgruntled coworkers with unresolved tension and uncommunicative.

Understand Why You Feel Emotionally Provoked (So You Can Respond Wisely)

Fighting fire with fire only creates a raging forest inferno. In conflict, responding with a heated reaction inflames what’s already sparked—it makes the conflict worse. Instead, try to understand why you feel emotionally provoked. This will redirect the energy from being a negative experience to an opportunity for growth (and solution).

If you feel triggered (emotionally provoked) by someone else’s reaction, get curious as to why. As you increase your awareness of “why,” it will help you feel less emotionally provoked by negative feelings in future circumstances. Sure, you may still feel heightened emotions, but you’ll have more control over how you respond. 

To understand why you feel emotionally triggered, ask yourself reflective questions like:

  1. How is this making me feel?
  2. Is this situation/person reminding me of an experience that left me feeling similarly?
  3. What do I believe to be true about this person or the situation? Is this actually true?
  4. What is true? (Think more logically here)

This type of self-questioning helps you become aware of your feelings and past while establishing new habits of positive self-talk.

The benefit of understanding the “why” behind our emotional reactions reminds me of when I’d pull weeds in the yard as a kid. Resentful of my chores, I’d hastily yank from whatever part of the stem I touched first to finish the job as quickly as possible. When I would rush, the root would still be left intact to the ground. This allowed the weed to regrow twice as fast. This created twice the work next time.

However, when I took the time to slow down and grip the stem at the base, I’d pull the entire root up. This slowed regrowth and made the next weeding much easier. (Plus, there was always something so satisfying about pulling the root out).

You want to address your heightened emotions in a similar way. The four questions above will help you get “to the root” of the emotion. They will create understanding and clarity. By doing this first, you’ll reduce the negative emotional reactions. By controlling these heightened emotions, your relationships will improve.

Man pleading for forgiveness from woman who does not want to talk.

Identify and Interrupt Thought and Behavior Patterns that Contribute to Problems in Your Life

If you feel recurringly upset, concerned, or discontent, look for patterns. This can be behaviors, thoughts, negative self-talk, and beliefs that are negatively affecting your situation. All of these can make it more difficult to control your emotions.

For example, I found myself recurringly frustrated with the same problem in my romantic relationship. After multiple (unsuccessful) conversations of me pointing blame, I took a step back to reflect on my frustration.

Since I’m a visual person, I find it easier to gain clarity if I write down what I’m thinking or feeling. So, I sat down with a blank page titled, “What role have I played?” As I dug deeper, I saw how much attention I was giving to what I thought was wrong in our relationship rather than right.

I also noticed I tended to be overly critical of my partner when I felt agitated in other areas of my life. These were some of the patterns I unearthed that were negatively contributing to a recurring problem in my relationship.

With the goal of a mutually beneficial (and sustainable) solution, I knew I needed to take some ownership of how I’d been contributing to the problem. I shared my reflection with him. It immediately dissolved some of the emotional barriers that previously prevented us from finding a resolution.

What are Emotional Barriers?

Emotional barriers are like walls our brain builds to protect us from fear. (Fear of being wrong, judged, or feeling an uncomfortable emotion, to name a few). Breaking down these walls we (unconsciously) build creates clarity on how to move toward a solution and will lead you toward greater control of your emotions.

Interrupt the Pattern: Replace the Old with the New

To move toward a solution that combats the problem, we have to interrupt the pattern causing it. Like when a smoker decides to quit cigarettes, there are alternatives to smoking (nicotine gum and stress reduction techniques). Replacing the old habit with a new, healthier one will help you create lasting change.

The same goes for changing an unhealthy pattern. We must redirect our central nervous system (which consists of the brain and spinal cord) to fire different thoughts and actions. This takes conscious effort, practice, and self-compassion.

This is because our central nervous system grows accustomed to habits (things we do over and over again). Those habits form neural pathways (think of these as the communication cords that inform our behavior and thought patterns). If we don’t put in the work to reroute these neural pathways regarding how we react, it will be nearly impossible to take control of our emotions.

In a snapshot, your brain’s job is to keep you safe, seek pleasure, and preserve as much energy as possible. When we do something repeatedly, the brain recognizes the pattern and goes: “Got it! Locked in.” It puts that habit on autopilot to give its energy to other stimuli. It’s the reason going to the gym gets easier with consistency. Your brain is a complex and intelligent system. However, it’s our job to check in with our habits and keep that system in check.

An Example of Pattern Interruption

I had fallen into the pattern of looking for what was going wrong in my relationships. Of course, because it was a long-time pattern, I hadn’t recognized it myself.

I had come to this realization in a yoga class while lying on my mat with my back down, arms to each side — exhausted form the workout. Then, during a debrief at the end, the instructor said something that seemed simple enough. But, when she said it, it was like the clouds parting. I noticed the unhealthy pattern I had in my relationships.

She suggested we begin exploring the idea of always assuming the best. For instance, when someone says something hurtful, assume that the person isn’t doing it out of spite. In face, the person may actually be trying to help. Sometimes, phrases just don’t come out right.

Or, if someone else’s actions cause you stress, assume the best. This could be an opportunity for you to find a new solution to an old problem.

Assuming the best (instead of looking for what’s wrong) was the pattern interruption I needed to apply in my own journey to control my emotions. I made my phone background in big, bold words, “Assume the best,” to remind myself daily. With that tangible reminder, I quickly realized that my guy was pretty special. And even if he wasn’t doing things for me in the way I wanted them done, he still had good intentions.

Change Takes Consistent Effort, Time, and Compassion

Behavior patterns are like rivers. Repeated action creates momentum in a certain direction (or flow). Over time, habitual actions shape our character, like how a river’s flow can shape the landscape it passes through. How we act also impacts our surroundings. And just like a river’s path can change for several reasons, we can also adjust our behavior to break negative cycles and encourage positive relationships (with self and others).

Once you identify behavior and thought patterns that are inhibiting you, you can interrupt it with a new behavior, thought, and belief. With effort, time, and compassion for your (perfectly imperfect) learning journey, the new way of doing things gets easier. Sustainable Change is about small, daily action toward your goal(s).

Woman in workout clothes, notebook in hand, introspective and pondering her experiences.

Look at the Situation From a Bird’s Eye View So You Can Grow from the Experience

For instance, during the pandemic of 2020, the company I worked for had to shut down. Since we didn’t really have customers to market to, I had to take a leave of absence. That by itself was pretty stressful. So, I was paying the bill doing freelance marketing work.

Once I felt like I was getting used to the “new normal,” my boyfriend of eight years broke up with me. It was sudden. As you can imagine, my heart felt heavy as I was flooded with overwhelming emotions. Our lives were so intertwined. We lived together, had a dog together, and shared our bills and our daily routine. A few days later, I sat on our bedroom floor in silence. I was alone, with my eyes closed.

It was an unusual experience for me. But in that quietude, I had what you might call a vision. I saw a stronger and wiser version of myself, looking down on me with compassion instead of pity. I felt as if she were saying, “I know it hurts, but this is what’s best for you.” It left me with a feeling of confidence, trust, and certainty in my ability to navigate the challenges ahead. It was a pivotal moment, recognizing that while the pain from these challenging situations was real, it also opened the door to growth and self-realization.

Broadening Your Perspective Opens the Doors to Limitless Opportunities 

Sure enough, this breakup was a catalyst for a huge personal transformation in the following years.

The week after the breakup, an old colleague reached out to me (out of nowhere) and offered me a full-time position with a salary that doubled what I was making. Four months later, I spontaneously bought my first home 10 minutes from the beach (which was a dream). A year later, I took a leap of faith and turned my passion project into a business.

Of course, these positive things didn’t come with a seamless path. They had their fair share of challenging emotions, too. But I really want you to see the endless possibilities that come from zooming out of your situation, like my unusual vision helped me do during an emotional breakup. Solutions, creative ideas, and positive change emerge.

Sure, you could describe the vision I had as a mystical experience. But whatever it was, the visual stuck with me from then on. It gave me hope, trust, and the courage to take control of my emotions, sit with the pain, and grow through it. It was like I was given a fresh, new pair of glasses to see my future obstacles through an optimistic lens.

When you zoom out from your current situation, you broaden your perspective. Broadening your perspective helps you see beyond the narrow scope of how you’re feeling in the moment. Next time you find yourself in a conflicting situation rife with unpleasant emotions, zoom out so you can see the bigger picture and possible solutions. This will also help you reflect and grow through conflict (instead of staying stagnant, narrow-minded, and ruled by negative emotions).

It’s Not Failure, Just Feedback

My first job post-college was working for a digital marketing agency that specialized in tech (an industry I had no experience in). Raised in the northeast, my boss was unfiltered and ruthlessly direct. I admired and appreciated how blunt she was. And sometimes, it came off a bit… intense.

As someone who is naturally empathetic, we had polarizing personalities. Not to mention, I was a youthful newbie to the “real world” with fresh eyes, eager to learn. Truthfully, I didn’t enjoy this job from the get-go. The work culture was dull, and half the time, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. But, I was gaining that “real world” experience.

One day, about three months into the job, I was on my (dreaded) commute to the office. Unexpectedly, my boss called to share feedback on a case study I’d written. One thing led to another, and the conversation turned away from the case study and toward my role in the job.

She asked me, “Why did you apply to work here anyway?” Without thinking, I reacted, “I just blasted my resume out there to agencies in Atlanta!” There was a long, awkward pause. *Shoot!* I thought to myself. I shouldn’t have said that.

After the longest five seconds of my life, she let out an audible sigh. “This is a niche industry, and I don’t think it’s a good fit,” she responded. Relieved yet mortified, I had just been fired over the phone from my first “real” job.

Learn From Your Emotions, But Don’t Let Them Lead You

I share this story to show what happened when I utterly failed to control my emotions. It cost me my job. Once I calmed down and reflected on the situation, I realized the impact my words had when I was in an emotionally reactive state. It can cause serious consequences.

Human emotions are messy. It’s easy to let them overtake us and react in the heat of the moment. But if we can reflect on our emotional reactions (because we’ve all been there) and learn something, it’s not a failure after all. Just feedback. Self-reflect, learn, and grow from your less-than-ideal experiences.

Confident and content business woman multi-tasking on work project.

Get Ahead of the Problem and Pay Attention to the Subtle Signals Life Provides (It Makes Life Easier)

I have this theory I pieced together over the years called the Whisper-Push-Bus. After looking back on the challenging turning points in my life, I saw that my experiences always tried to communicate something to me. A “something” to help pull me out of my less-than-ideal circumstances and better my life.

The traffic anxiety was telling me to slow down and not be in such a rush. The recurring relationship problem taught me to take responsibility. Pulling weeds as a kid taught me the sustainability that comes when you get to the root of something.

Life tends to whisper to us when something is out of balance or simply unsupportive of the direction that is in our best interest. Sometimes, this comes in waves of recurring thoughts or subtle roadblocks. If we don’t acknowledge the whisper, it becomes a push, still itching to get our attention. Eventually, if we don’t acknowledge the push, it becomes a moving bus, hauling 50mph toward us with little to no reaction time.

The whisper, push, and bus don’t come to make our lives miserable or create emotional distress. Rather, they come to show us how to navigate life more in alignment with our internal compass. Listen for the whisper, and you will get ahead of the problem.

Next Time Your Team Is in Conflict, Try These Strategies to Control Your Emotions

Just like a flight attendant advises you to put your mask on before helping others, emotional maturity is checking in with yourself before reacting to others (and making the situation worse).   

When you face a challenging situation, focus on deep breathing to calm your mind and prevent an emotional reaction. Next, understand why you feel emotionally provoked so you can respond wisely. Then, identify any thought and behavior patterns that are causing negative reactions and problems in your life. Also, try to look at the situation from a bird’s eye view to learn and grow from the experience. And finally, get ahead of the problem and pay attention to the subtle signals life provides. These strategies will help you control your emotions and address conflict with deeper understanding, sharpened awareness, and ease.

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