In sports, at work, and in life, conflict is inevitable. You’re always going to have disagreements, and as much as we’d like to wish otherwise, people don’t always get along. Especially in the world of sports where emotions run high, conflict comes with the territory. But fighting is optional. In my over 25 years of experience as a cricket umpire, I’ve gotten up close and personal with conflict. No, conflict is not something to be feared. Think of it as just another issue that you can successfully manage with the right tools and approaches.
So, here are some winning strategies that will help you in any high-stress situation.
To manage conflict, you need to understand why it has occurred in the first place. If your customer is upset because they haven’t heard back from you about an order, telling them to calm down won’t cut it. You need to be asking them what their concern is and why they’re feeling upset – only then can you understand how you can best settle the issue. This is why active listening is the crucial first step to managing conflict.
Let’s take the example of one of the first ODI (One Day International) matches I umpired – Australia versus the West Indies. There was a disagreement between Brian Lara (who was batting) and Michael Bevan, and I took it upon myself to step in. I told Brian to focus on the cricket and not on arguing with Michael. Now, Brian was upset with me for stepping in too soon. What was a player-versus-player conflict now turned into a player-versus-umpire conflict. These were two experienced sportsmen and I got involved without understanding what the problem was.
Instead of asking questions and offering to help, I told Brian what to do. I wasn’t listening effectively and as a result, I couldn’t manage the situation. After the match, I spoke to my colleague – another International Umpire – and asked him what I could’ve done differently. Basically, I should’ve done the opposite of what I did. The better approach would’ve been to hold back and let the players get their grievances off their chests. With that context, I could’ve asked Brian what the issue was and how I could help. Unless you’re able to listen effectively, you won’t have the common understanding needed to manage conflict. Getting a proper understanding of the issue and why the person feels the way they do is key.
There’s a term we use in sports that goes “play the ball, not the man”. In a conflict, things can get personal really quickly, and that’s when tempers flare. It comes down to how you’re using language. We’ve all been in arguments that have devolved to pointing fingers: “You did this!” or “You’re wrong!” All of a sudden, we lose track of the issue and are directing our frustration at the person – labelling and accusing them. You’re emotionally hijacked. Instead of solving the problem, the conversation becomes about saving face and not feeling offended or threatened. You’re playing the man instead of the ball.
A better way is to keep the discussion focused on the issue, and think about potential solutions. Language is very important here. You want to use inclusive language to tell the person that you’re on the same side of the table. You could say, “What can we do here?” or “How does this affect us?” or “Can you help us?” When you avoid framing the issue as you-versus-me, and use words like “us” and “we”, the other person is less likely to feel threatened or under attack.
Let’s say you’re in a situation where the person you’re talking to is already angry – they’ve raised their voice, or are stamping their feet. Would you shout back at them to resolve the issue? Surely that would only make things worse. If you want someone to calm down, reflect a calm demeanour back to them. Be measured in your words and keep your voice low. Stay rational even if things get personal, which can happen all too quickly in an argument. Interestingly, you’ll find that when you reflect a calm demeanour, the person who is riled up will start mirroring your behaviour. Of course there will always be exceptions to the rule. But by and large, remaining calm will give you the highest chance of getting the other person to calm down as well.
First, remember not to take things said in a conflict environment personally, even if the person is being confrontational. When I officiated cricket matches, I soon realised that players weren’t directing their anger at me personally; they were frustrated with my uniform, the system, or what I represented. I’m sure you’ve said things you don’t mean in the heat of the moment. So when you’re in a conflict situation, filter through the personal jabs and ask yourself what the person is actually trying to communicate. When you start taking things personally, conflict will only escalate. Being self-aware will help you steer clear of taking things personally.
Have you noticed a pattern in the types of issues that get to you? Is it a particular tone that consistently ticks you off, or a certain topic? Knowing your triggers will allow you to change your responses to them. Imagine you’re in a situation where someone is pushing your buttons. If you’re self-aware, you’ll notice yourself getting angered and then proceed to change your internal state. Of course, this level of self-awareness takes practice, and it most definitely doesn’t happen overnight.
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to practice self-awareness. Because in the heat of battle, your body reacts as well – your heart rate increases, your blood pressure rises. You start to function on autopilot, often without thinking through the consequences. When you’ve practised responding calmly to conflict situations, it puts you in a better position to diffuse the situation in its initial stages. Practise self-awareness like you would practise any other skill you’d want to pick up. Calm should be your default mode when you’re provoked.
As you start to change your default responses to conflict situations, it is worth building a language toolkit that will help you respond to situations calmly. I talked to other match officials and asked them what was in their toolkit – what options do I have to appease two parties, how do I explain things without baiting someone to an argument? While this may change from situation to situation, I’d recommend having a few phrases or questions ready that show the person you’re engaging with that you want to understand their perspective. You could say “Thank you for sharing, I understand how you feel,” or “I’m pleased you told me, let’s see how we can make things better,” or “Would you be able to help us by…”
Usually, people are frustrated when they feel that they’re not heard. So your first response when someone is riled up, should be to acknowledge that the situation isn’t ideal. When you ask questions and acknowledge their emotions, you’re actually empathising with them. In most cases, this will prevent matters from escalating.
Let’s say you’ve provided your listening ear and have tried to understand, but the person is still angry. You’ll now have to switch your communication style. Be firm. You should tell them that while you understand that they’re unhappy, if they continue behaving this way they’d leave you with no choice but to take further action. Then outline what that action might involve – reporting to a manager, or issuing them a warning.
What you’re doing is handing control back to the person. You’re telling them that they get to decide how this situation pans out. You’re telling them you’re not trying to control the situation, and are just responding to what they’re doing. So they have the power to influence the outcome by choosing to change their behaviour. They’re the ones in charge here.
As you’ve told them what they can expect if they continue down the path of conflict, they won’t be taken by surprise. They’re therefore less likely to fight with you or get explosive when you do have to take that step. You’re not adding fuel to fire, you’re giving them the heads-up that they need. While the person may not be happy about it, they’re likely to calm down to avoid being penalised.
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International Cricket Umpire, Performance Management Consultant