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How to Stop a Conflict Before it Starts

Updated on June 5, 2010

Using Preventative Mediation

Many potential conflicts can be stopped before they escalate by applying a concept known as preventative mediation.

Learn how to stop conflicts before they start to escalate. Learn to recognize potential workplace and personal conflicts and to take the actions to stop them. Use these preventative mediation ideas to improve your leadership and communication skills.

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This approach is NOT about avoiding conflicts.

This lens is about the skills and approaches necessary to head-off conflicts before they grow out-of-control.

Preventative Action to Stop Conflicts Before They Happen

The ability to stop conflicts before they happen rests on four Rules of Engagement:

  1. Do not "walk-away" from the potential conflict. Stay engaged with the other person, and control your "flight" response.

  2. Do not resort to "power-plays" towards the other person. Control your "fight" response.

  3. Take some risks. Recognize when the other person has a valid point. Acknowledge their feelings, even if you don't agree with their perspective.

  4. Resist the urge to exploit the other person's risk taking. Acknowledge their moves towards you.

If you learn to apply these four rules, you will experience the following results in the vast majority of situations.

  1. When you stay engaged, you show the desire to learn from the other person's perspective. You give them a chance to feel that you heard and understood them.

  2. When you avoid extreme emotional responses that lead to aggressive power-plays, you create a safe environment where the other person feels comfortable speaking with you.

  3. When you take risks, you trigger the other person's "inhibitory reflex." This is a natural reflex that causes most people to feel compelled to listen and acknowledge you after you have listened to and acknowledged them.

  4. When you gracefully accept their conciliatory gestures, you make it clear that your intentions are honorable. You communicate that you care about them as a person, even if you happen to disagree with their perspective or behavior.

Ways of thinking to head-off conflicts:

Different is not a threat. Avoid saying that different is wrong.

Feelings are real. Angry is not necessarily bad.

I own my feelings. No one makes me angry. I experience anger because of my perception of a situation.

Learn To Respond Rather Than React

The most frequent question I receive with regard to conflict resolution is this:

"How do you remember the better ways to resolve conflict when you get caught off-guard, and you find yourself in a situation that you did not anticipate?"

Great question. I wish I could say that I had a perfect track record to point to in answering it. I have some approaches that usually work for me, and I still say and do things that escalate rather than resolve the conflicts in my life. However, I have learned one powerful thought that works really well to help me in these situations.

The best communication strategies and techniques for conflict resolution demand self-control and logical processing. In reality, most of us are not self-controlled or logical when we get caught unprepared or unaware.

In the "heat of the moment" we gravitate to emotional rather than rational thought. Since emotional thought tends to drive our reactions to situations, we often choose words and actions that actually increase the level of conflict rather than resolve it.

  • We feel pushed, so we push.
  • We feel attacked, so we attack.
  • We feel criticized, so we criticize.

If asked in a non-stressed, rational moment, we probably know exactly how to handle a situation. Then we find ourselves in an emotionally charged conflict of ideas or wills, and we forget the strategies we learned in calmer times.

So, I'll restate the original question in a different way:

How do you maintain self-control and logical thinking in an emotional situation?

The answer - remember to respond rather than react.

Simply remembering the difference between these words can help you to remain calm, self-controlled and rational.

First, let's see how these words are defined. Then we'll look at the practical application.


1. To act in response to an agent or influence.

2. To act reciprocally upon each other, as two things.1


1. To reply or answer in words.

2. To react favorably.2

Notice that reacting implies a reciprocal behavior driven by an external agent (the other person). In other words, when we react, we let the other person's words and behaviors determine our words and behaviors. We react to their words in a reciprocal (the same as they acted) fashion. If the other person's behavior seemed inappropriate to us, our reaction will likely seem inappropriate to them. Then we lock ourselves in a continuing cycle of "bad" behaviors that escalates the conflict rather than resolving it.

Responding calls for a reply in words (not in silence or withdrawal). It implies a favorable choice of words. In other words, we remain respectful and kind, even in conflict. When we think response and not reaction we focus our energy and thoughts on resolving rather than escalating the conflict.

Just to emphasize the point, I'll borrow an example that I learned from Zig Ziglar. Think, for a moment, about the difference between these two statements:

  • "The doctor said that I had a reaction to the medication." (negative connotation)

  • "The doctor said that I responded to the medication." (positive connotation)

When class participants and clients ask me how they can improve their reaction to conflicts, I generally suggest that they think in terms of responses and not reactions. I encourage them to think in a positive rather than a negative direction.

Thinking in terms of reactions generally focuses on quick phrases or techniques to turn the direction of the conflict. Thinking in terms of responses allows for the processing or reflection time that creates a thoughtful and rational (not emotional) approach to the situation.

The shift in thinking from "How should I react to this situation?" to "How should I respond to this situation?" allows me to remain more calm and self-controlled when conflict strikes. Many of my clients tell me the same is true for them.

1"react." Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 26 Mar. 2008.

2"respond." Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. 26 Mar. 2008.

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Books to Help You With This Topic

Courage: The Backbone of Leadership
Courage: The Backbone of Leadership

In this book, Gus Lee presents a powerful communication strategy that helps to prevent conflicts.

The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict
The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict

A great book by The Arbinger Institute. Learn how to think about other people's actions so that you can have a "heart at peace" towards them.

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Learn the skills of handling difficult conversations from the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior
Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior

Similar to Courage: The Backbone of Leadership. This book teaches how to confront difficult situations with other people.


What do you think? What can I add? What questions do you have?

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    • recoveringengin profile image

      recoveringengin 5 years ago

      @ih8mycow: I wouldn't recommend sending anonymous emails. It could help you feel better by venting the emotion. I'm not confident that it will really address the underlying conflict.

    • profile image

      ih8mycow 5 years ago

      Also, sending out any anonymous hate mail to the other person may be classified under "What not to do" during a conflict but it can help you release those pent up emotions to that person. This site called can actually let you send out anonymous emails.

    • profile image

      MervynGoh 7 years ago


      interesting article u have, it really benefit me. Thanks

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 7 years ago

      I like the thought of owning your feelings.

    • profile image

      dvlpdecision 7 years ago

      Good lens. Useful information supplied to the lens.

      Thank you very much for sharing lens.