Tools to Become Less Afraid of Conflict and Manage It


Recently I have had a number of people download our free webinar recording on conflict. Thanks for doing that. Given this interest, I decided to write about conflict this week. These are the four things we will tackle briefly in today’s every second Tuesday blog:

  • Why is conflict scary? Why should you NOT be afraid of it?
  • How can you become less afraid of it?
  • What specifically can you do to manage it skillfully?
  • What are the benefits of facing conflict on a daily basis?

There are excellent additional links for free and for-sale resources at the end of this blog to expand your comfort zone with conflict. Our goal is to be able to encourage you to tap into the growth opportunities of conflict. As always, this blog is mainly focused on techniques and concepts for leaders, facilitators, mediators and trainers. However in this case, we will first focus on you, the individual, because being able to handle conflict in a group depends on your own level of comfort and internal reaction to conflict.

Why is conflict scary and why you should not be afraid of it?

On a personal level, we all have memories and early associations with conflict that got stored (and in some cases “locked’) into our long term memory center (i.e., in the amygdala part of the limbic brain).  So when tension or conflict surfaces in our current lives, often we have a reptilian brain response which is “fight, flight or freeze” as the most common reactions. For most of us, I expect that when conflict arose in our own families or childhoods, we did not have someone scoop us up in their loving arms and tenderly explain that we were safe. Instead, the conflict often was directed at us or threatened someone close and important to us – a sibling or parent. Likely, no one jumped in to prevent the conflict from reaching us or them. Because we were small, young or inexperienced in knowing how to react skillfully to conflict and unable to defend ourselves, it did feel pretty scary. Sometimes, those old memories, and associations flood back to us unconsciously when conflict arises in our adult lives. It may even feel as though our lives are in danger! This explains why most of us mentally or physically “disappear”. We irrationally either jump into that hole like the little animal (ground squirrel) in the picture above, or we fight back, going into an “attack” mode that often is exaggerated compared to the actual threat.

How can you become less afraid of it?

Let us imagine we could observe our automatic fear response, just notice it and explain to ourselves that likely we are not currently in danger. I have observed that if we are able to watch the conflict, sit through it until it subsides, we will feel almost ecstatic at our bravery and the impact of sitting through it. Another way is to talk about it with another person who you trust. Just have them listen to this fear and not make any comment or reassure you but just give you good attention for a few minutes. We teach these techniques in more depth in a few of our courses.

It might help you also to watch this short You Tube film.  It is about a weather storm system that arises and relatively quickly goes away. That is the nature of conflict. Generally it arises relatively quickly and if handled skillfully, it dissipates into a beautiful clarity or calm. I have seen this in myself, in others and most elegantly and beautifully, I have seen it in groups. I watch conflict arise in groups I facilitate and in meetings of which I am part. It just happened yesterday in fact. Tension arises. Two or more individuals’ perspectives seem to be almost irreconcilable. You wish you could escape. You wish they would just get along. And then they stay with it. They trust each other to get through it, and an insight or clear path emerges. It is so fantastic. That is why we call it a “break- through” moment.




So let’s go back to our original question, “how can you become less afraid of it?” First, observe the conflict or tension arise either inside yourself or in the group. Like a weather system, if you are paying attention, you can usually see it or feel it coming. Take deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Imagine yourself growing deep roots so that nothing can blow you over. Remind yourself you are safe. If you are in danger, then by all means, go down your own escape route, like the ground squirrel. But most of the time, you know you are NOT in danger, so just dig deep into your courage, and face it.

What specifically can you do to manage it skillfully?

The simplest and most effective thing is to say to the tense or angry person, “Say more”. Show them you are interested. This usually calms them down. “Ah”, they may be thinking – “This is hopeful. Someone is interested. I have a possible ally…”

Quote-Say More

The simple phrase “say more” automatically deescalates the tension. The trick is to mean it. This is your internal work. Make eye contact. Smile if you can and repeat, “I really want to understand what is going on for you.” Then later you can use all those fancy paraphrasing techniques, try to get to the underlying human need, etc. See below for more. But for now, the simplest and most helpful thing to do is to not to be defensive, attack or “go down the hole”. Just stay present and be curious. It helps to also be light. If you get the group laughing , you know you have started the healing that is needed.

What are the benefits of facing conflict on a daily basis?

You show your true leadership skills. You feel more confident. You model compassion and courage. You wake up less afraid. You truly help the group or person make a break through. You just made your community, workplace, team or home a more peaceful place. Wow. Amazing.

Watch that storm video again and notice what happens. What new things do you notice this time? What lessons can you learn from nature about conflict or “storming” groups? How can you help “clear the air” the next time conflict arises?

Invaluable Conflict Resources

Live Training

Did you know Strategic Planning and Environmental Scanning Approaches are also hugely successful in identifying and resolving both hidden and obvious conflicts head on? Try our advanced Technology of Participation (ToP) courses developed by the global organization, The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA). ICA was the key founder of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF). These courses are open to you if you have taken our ToP prerequisite foundational course, ToP Facilitation Methods.

My Favorite Resources on becoming confident about conflict

– Website:

– Journaling Book:

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.


  1. Simba on November 26, 2014 at 10:17 pm


    being able to handle conflict in a group depends on your own level of comfort and internal reaction to conflict.

    • Barbara Mackay on January 14, 2015 at 2:50 pm

      Simba – sorry to be so slow to reply. I just noticed this comment. Yes, I realized early in my facilitation career that I was not comfortable with conflict. I made a decision to take a lot of training in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation and other relevant courses. Then I practiced with everyone who had a conflict with me or vice versa. It was very scary to do that. 🙁 Now I am much better at handling conflict in groups.

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