Fight or flight. A flash of anger when we run into a table. Wincing when we hear a baby screaming behind us on an airplane. The rush of adrenaline when we barely miss being hit by a car.
Humans are reaction machines. Our entire biology is structured to respond to our environment. Our body temperature raises or lowers depending on the external temperature or internal infection. Our irises enlarge or contract depending on how much light enters our eyes. Our metabolism slows down or speeds up depending on how much energy is available to it.
It’s no surprise then that we are emotional reaction machines as well. When an unexpected or unpleasant event happens, we feel a visceral sensation in our bodies. We might call that “anger” or “anxiety.” We might call it “shock” or “panic.” Whatever we call it, we feel the sensation first in our bodies and then interpret it as an emotion.
In his book Getting Past No, William Ury explains a concept that he calls, “Going to the balcony.” When we are dealing with conflict, Ury urges us to take a step back to short circuit the default emotional reaction that we feel.
For example, if we get a text message or email that makes us feel the sensation we call anger, “going to the balcony” would mean saving our hot-headed reply as a draft and revisiting the next day after we’ve had some time to cool down.
If we are having a face-to-face confrontation with someone, “going to the balcony” could involve rephrasing the other person’s argument to show that we’re listening. This action slows down the confrontation speed and gives us some time to consider our response instead of escalating the conflict.
This method is not designed to win an argument; it is designed to keep us from saying or doing something in an emotional moment that we will regret. We might still disagree with the person’s position, but at least we haven’t compromised our own position by pushing them into an even more irrational or combative stance.
Since we need to “go to the balcony” in moments when we are in an emotionally volatile state, it can be helpful to develop a quick reminder that triggers us to pause before reacting. Some people dig their fingernails into their palm to remind them to wait before reacting. Some people count down from 10 to give themselves time to cool off.
My personal strategy is to clear my mind of any responses and just focus on listening. Once I was in a very intense situation when a businessman was unleashing all of his frustrations on me. He was practically shouting at me about all of problems he had with the organization that I was supporting and how his work wasn’t being appreciated by the organization.
My instinctive reaction would have been to tell him that he was wrong and ask him why he hadn’t mentioned any of these issues before. But I knew I needed to “go to the balcony,” so I cleared my mind of all my objections and asked him for more information. I empathized with his feelings and asked him to show me all of the work he had been doing.
After spending several minutes listening to him walk me through all of his contributions, I expressed my sincere gratitude for his bringing this hard work to my attention. I asked how I could support him in meeting his objectives, and we identified several areas where our goals overlapped. We shook hands, and I walked out of the office on better terms.
If I had yelled back at him, it would have temporarily satisfied my ego but would have destroyed the business relationship.
Practice the trigger gesture or action that will stop you from immediately reacting in high conflict situations. When you’re in the moment, tell yourself, “go to the balcony” or any phrase that helps you pause. For example, my friend KBJ always says, “Be the cloud” and let the other person’s emotions and arguments pass through you.
How do you resist reacting in high conflict situations? I’d love to hear your strategies below in the comments section!