Managing conflict well is not about suppressing emotions; rather it is about providing a constructive way to communicate about and through them.
What does this mean in practice?
Firstly, we need to accept that emotions are an integral part of conflict. They are always there, whether or not they are expressed, and whether or not they are helping or hindering the effective management of the conflict. Some emotions shut down emotion, others increase negative communication, and there are some emotions that actively promote better communication.
We also need to understand that it is not possible to resolve a conflict effectively without addressing everyone’s emotions (and by everyone, I mean the parties to the conflict and any support people involved, such as conflict coaches, union representatives, family members, mediators or lawyers). For a great book about conflict professionals being aware of their own emotions in conflict resolution, I recommend Inside Out by Gary Friedman.
We often tend to shy away from attending to emotions (both our own and others’), but in conflict we need to really explore our emotions, even though that can feel quite uncomfortable and hard work. We can’t manage our emotions if we are not really clear about what we are feeling and why. Conflict professionals need to be prepared to support their clients to explore their emotions, not in the same way as a therapist, rather in relation to how those emotions are triggered by the conflict. The book Building Agreement: Using emotions as you negotiate by Fisher and Shapiro provides some guidance on how to help people in conflict identify their core concerns that underlie their emotions.
Some emotions should be communicated to those with whom we are in conflict; others are probably best left unexpressed. There are also constructive and unconstructive ways to communicate emotions. Whether and how emotions should be communicated to others needs to be expressly considered. If people in conflict do not plan for the effective communication of emotions, those emotions are likely to seep out anyway in unhelpful ways.
There are three things that tend to promote better management of emotion and hence better conflict management. The first is time (and time out)! People in conflict generally find that they can better manage emotions when they have had time to explore them (in a constructive way, not simply letting them fester). The second, which is important to ensure that time is spent constructively, is having a support person, like a conflict coach, to help a person in conflict to reflect meaningfully on their emotions and how they are triggered by and impacting on the conflict. Finally, having the opportunity to rehearse the communication of emotions is also helpful, and again something that can be facilitated by a conflict coach.