Timing: Conflict and the art of procrastination.

June 30, 2023

A graph of emotional intensity over time

It’s summer, and the revolving door of people coming and going on vacation is constantly spinning. Dynamics shift, paths cross, and other paths…miss each other. In this irregular season, lingering conflict has a tendency to get pushed off until there’s a better time to deal with it.

Yet there will never be a perfect moment, and waiting for one only prolongs the process of resolution. Worse, procrastination gives underlying issues, even if they’re little, time to build up into bigger ones. Before we know it, we can find ourselves living with a baseline of emotional tension that is much more difficult to untangle than it once would have been.

Does this mean that when your colleague returns from two weeks at the lake with his family you should jump on him with your flood of frustrations as soon as they enter the office? Probably not. On this other end of the timing spectrum, we can react too quickly as well.

To quote Dr. Frumi Rachel Barr, an executive coach:

"The truth is that many confrontations fail not because others are bad and wrong, but because we handle them poorly."

Put another way: with a little more thoughtfulness, we could have delivered our message a little less poorly – and so our timing of difficult conversations is oft as important as what we say.

When we challenge people, we need to understand that how we say something affects its reception. In so doing, we develop our capacity to learn how to tell people things in a way that is simultaneously honest and kind. Not only does this allow us to try being the best version of ourselves, but it also gives the same opportunity to the other person as well. Because, like it or not, the wrong words trigger a biological defensive response that can get in the way of us thinking clearly.

A teddy bear looks into a mirror and sees a grizzly bear

In the heat of the moment, it can be tempting to react by instinct. We think: If I deal with something directly, then it won’t be hanging over me as long, right?

Sometimes – but many times not. A defensive response that’s biological can feel like instinct, but it also is a state where we are not thinking clearly. And if our reaction triggers a defensive response in the other person, they will act before thinking as well. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth…it’s easy to see how a small issue can quickly escalate into a much bigger one.

The defensive surge from our heightened sense of readiness takes 20 minutes to an hour to dissipate. During that time we are unable to think clearly, and the length of such a state of mind becomes even longer if somebody does something more to keep it going…which unfortunately is too often what happens (remember that back-and-forth vibe?). Such situations can be very difficult to walk away from.

It often takes a night’s sleep to reset the hormones released in a defensive state. So whether we recognize defensiveness arising in ourselves or others, it’s worth remembering that we might not be at our best.

When feeling the clouded perspective of defensiveness, it’s okay to say: "I’m willing to talk about this. Can we pick this up tomorrow?" Ask for what you need. Or, offer what you need.

Evidently, there is a line to be walked between reacting too quickly and procrastinating.

Process trumps content. What is most problematic about conflict is often how it is dealt with, rather than the original situation itself. An ill-delivered message can make an awkward conversation absolutely impossible and untenable for the other person – which serves no one.

None of us will ever arrive at perfection. But with practice and perseverance we can all get a little better at dealing with it, mitigating escalations and pursuing conflict resolution.

We can’t tell you whether now is the right moment to deal with any persistent conflict in your life, but we can (and do) ask you to consider: when would the right time be?

If you’d like to dive deeper into understanding your relationship with conflict, our Introduction to Conflict Resolution and Dealing with Defensiveness online courses offer foundations that are recommended for all.

We are here to support you. Contact us with any questions and let’s get the conversation going.

If you have questions,
please don’t hesitate to call.


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