How to change your body language to improve your conflict resolution skills

Do you struggle to cope with confrontation and aggression? Read tips on how to change your body language and improve your conflict resolution skills.

When we’re trying to navigate difficult situations – especially those that involve conflict of some kind – we’re very careful about the words we choose. But what about our body language?

Sometimes we focus so much on what we’re saying that we forget to think about how we’re conveying it. And importantly, what our body language and facial expressions are communicating.

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55% of communication is through our facial expressions

But if we want to ensure the right outcome, it’s essential we consider what message we’re conveying through body language. According to research by Professor Albert Mehrabian, as much as 55% of what we say is communicated by our facial expressions.

And importantly, it is our facial expressions that have the biggest impact on the feelings and attitudes of the people we are talking to.

To help you ensure your body language doesn’t deliver the wrong message, executive coach Elizabeth Kuhnke has kindly shared an edited extract from her book Body Language: Learn how to read others and communicate with confidence with us.

How do you cope with conflict?

Conflict. Aggression. Confrontation. For many, these are words of dread, while for others, they are the breakfast of champions.

Before going any further, let’s do a little spot check.

  • Do you accept that conflict, change, and arguments are a natural part of life?
  • Do you seek to find peaceful solutions to disagreements?

If you answered yes to the above questions, congratulations. I trust your behaviour reflects respect for others and the desire to build rapport in your quest to produce mutually satisfying results.

On the contrary:

  • Are you a people pleaser?
  • Are you prone to anxiety?
  • Do you fear conflict and negative feelings, including anger?
  • When you feel upset, do you sweep your problems under the rug?
  • Do you resist expressing your emotions?
  • Do you struggle to ask for what you want?
  • Do you frequently feel resentful?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on to discover how to think and act as you move from avoiding to accepting conflict, seeing it as the beginning of a profitable and productive relationship – and improve your own conflict resolution skills.

How do you begin to resolve conflict?

Begin by considering your relationship with conflict. Is conflict something you welcome or would you rather eat crushed glass before entering into a dispute? Perhaps being right is part of your DNA and you relish the chance to crush the opposition.

Confrontation is a natural part of life. Conflict can be seen as the catalyst for keeping people curious. Without conflicting opinions, life would be a rather predictable place. Differences in opinion are good, in that they expand a person’s thinking and lead to better‐informed choices.

If you keep in mind your goals and listen to what’s important to the other person, you can achieve win-win results without shedding blood.

All too often, people view conflict as a negative battle of wills, with a winner and a loser at the finish line. If that’s you, change your attitude. Make a conscious decision to perceive conflict as an opportunity to treat other people with respect as you learn about their differing values, needs, and concerns.

In addition, you can treat conflict as an opportunity to express your needs, values, and concerns too. ALWAYS in a respectful way. Avoid getting all hot under the collar and snarling like a rabid dog. This won’t win you any friends and while you may win a battle that way, you’ll lose the war.

Instead, when your viewpoint is different from the other person’s, remain cool, calm, and in control of your actions, expressions, and your choice of vocabulary. Keep in mind your desired outcomes, the main one being to resolve the conflict and achieve results that please both parties.

What to do when resolving conflict

If you want to resolve conflict:

  • Aim to understand the other person’s perspective.
  • Be willing to accept that you and others may have a different point of view.
  • Make it your purpose to achieve an outcome that satisfies both of you.
  • Be prepared to devote time and patience to the process.
  • Unless your core values are under attack, be willing to compromise for the purpose of producing results that satisfy all parties.

Business people, people who work in teams, organisational representatives, and anyone else who engages with other individuals know that from time to time differences in needs, concerns, and opinions occur.

People who have successful relationships tend to have a healthy view of themselves and are respectful of others. Rather than shying away from conflict, they encourage it, understanding that different points of view add value when decisions are being made.

Managing your body language

When you find yourself in a conflict situation, unless guns are being fired in your direction, stay put even when the following behaviours are coming your way.

Facial expressions:

  • Tightness around mouth and eyes
  • Frowning, scowling, and glaring
  • Lowered eyebrows
  • Tense jaw
  • Flushed skin colour
  • Hot and perspiring

Gestures:

  • Pointing and jabbing fingers
  • Crossed arms and legs
  • Clenched fists
  • Short, shallow breathing
  • Quick
  • Jerky
  • Encroaching on your space

Vocal patterns:

  • Loud
  • Harsh
  • Tight
  • Threatening or abusive language
  • Quick pace
  • High pitch

Adopt these behaviours to resolve conflict

Hold your ground and face your adversary. Remain silent and do not interrupt. Once the other person has spent their energy, adopt the following behaviours to help resolve the conflict.

Facial expressions:

  • Smooth forehead
  • Relaxed muscles around eyes and mouth
  • Gently closed mouth
  • Loosely held jaw

Gestures:

  • Head nodding with understanding and acceptance
  • Open hand gestures
  • Arms uncrossed
  • Chest exposed
  • Slow, deep breathing

Vocal Patterns:

  • Low tones
  • Measured
  • Firm
  • Steady
  • Reassuring language

I know this may feel uncomfortable, but do it anyhow. At this point you don’t want to mirror and match the other person’s behaviours for fear of escalating the conflict further.

Give them time to put their case forward without arguing or interrupting. Actively listen and aim to understand how the other person is experiencing the world.

By treating them fairly and presenting your position in a way that the other person can understand, you are on your way to reaching mutually desirable outcomes through constructive conflict.

Conflict resolution exercise

Before entering into a dispute, find out as much about the other party – and yourself – as you can by asking:

  • What are my values?
  • What do I want to achieve as a result of this interaction?
  • What’s important to me about that?
  • What are the other person’s values?
  • What do they want to achieve?
  • What’s important to them about that?
  • What am I willing to do to reach my desired outcomes?
  • What else can I do?
  • What am I not willing to do?
  • What am I willing to give up?

This exercise takes time, patience, and a willingness to dig deep. The benefit of doing so is that you will meet conflict with grace and generosity, court confrontation when doing so is beneficial, and produce the kind of positive results that people talk about with respect and admiration.

Elizabeth Kuhnke is an Executive Coach, specialising in impact and influence. This is an edited extract from her latest book Body Language: Learn how to read others and communicate with confidence (published by Capstone, July 2016)