Humans are social creatures. We congregate in all sorts of tribes – family, sporting groups, colleagues – because there is safety in numbers. When we are in conflict with members of our tribe, we worry about losing connection to something important. We could be feeling reluctantly dependent on, or controlled, by another. And that’s when interpersonal conflict at work can emerge.

Rejection and criticism from a person of influence (let’s call them the antagonist) in our work tribe can carry the threat of disconnection. Disconnection from something important to us.

Think about it. Disagreements with a team member could result in social exclusion. Complaints from customers could result in demotion to a less prestigious role. Conflict with your boss could result in job loss.

The primary emotional responses to disconnection from the safety of the pack are anger, sadness or fear. But our automatic response may be to feel mistrust, withdraw, or fight back somehow. These automatic responses could be received by the antagonist as an invitation to continue the rejecting behaviour. And so an unhealthy dynamic can occur.

While we cannot control how others behave towards us, we are responsible for how we respond. Understanding what motivates our responses to threatening behaviour provides us with choices. These choices can help us reduce interpersonal conflict in the workplace. When we notice what’s happening inside us, and understand what drives that, we can choose to behave differently.

When we behave differently, the people around us do too. You still may not like their behaviour, but you’ll feel less like you’ve lost your sense of autonomy and more connected to what is important to you.

At Emotions@Work, we teach people how to change habitual and unhelpful responses by connecting with the messages their emotions are giving them. This is the surest way to connect with a sense of personal wellbeing.

Being more attuned to the emotional responses driving your decisions will help you better regulate uncomfortable physiological responses, such feelings of anxiety. You will become more focused on what you can do to move forward.

We can all relate to the following example in some form or another:

A person with an threatening attitude arrives with an angry complaint. Your internal voice murmurs, “Here they go again”. You don’t like how you are feeling. You feel like telling the person to go away. You give the person the space to express themselves, but you’ve already switched off. Eventually they’ll leave. Right?

Well yes, but will either of you feel satisfied? Perhaps not.

Being able to press your internal pause button and regulate your emotions helps in two ways. It enables you to consciously acknowledge the antagonist’s anger and to recognise your own response to it. Perhaps you’ll recognise you have an aversion to dealing with anger and that your tendency is to react to the antagonist’s anger not the problem.

When you consciously regulate your emotions, you have options in how you respond to others. You give yourself the space to choose what you do next. When you have choices, you can be more creative in finding mutually beneficial solutions. You’re able to authentically make those you are in conflict with feel genuinely valued and heard. When people feel valued, they respond more positively.

People want to experience positive emotions at work. They want to feel their contribution matters. An emotionally competent workforce means less interpersonal conflict and higher productivity. And that makes economic sense.