The Language of Conflict Resolution

Choosing neutral words can make a big difference in how a conflict progresses, either defusing it or escalating it. Neutral words help to defuse a conflict; hot words will help to escalate a conflict.  By neutral we mean these words do not assign blame, guilt, shame or appear judgmental. Hot words do one or more of the above and cause emotions to rise and conflict to increase.  We need to choose words to reflect the content and emotional language being expressed.  That is an important role for the mediator and hopefully provides an example for the participants.

Mediators are trained to be aware of their language and to choose language which is clear, concise, and appropriate for the discussion. Since not everyone is aware of their language and the impact it has, this is a good practice for all of us.

Note that under pressure or stress we can react so quickly that we speak before we realize the impact of what we have said!

Neutral words:

I am ________________ (disappointed, upset, angry, hurt, sad, concerned, worried etc.)  There is a whole list of words to describe emotions. Here are some words describing typical emotions in a conflict situation:  powerless, confused, helpless, inferior, suspicious, excited, worried, sad, embarrassed, nervous, challenged, rejected, wronged, threatened, victimized, alienated, angry, uneasy, scared, unhappy, overwhelmed.  This can help you expand your “emotional vocabulary”.  If the other party feels that you have an understanding of what they are feeling/saying, this aids in having a productive meeting.  Using neutral words will help you appear perceptive and interested and you will in fact be those things!

Hot words:

You have ___________ (driven me crazy, gone over the top, lied, insulted me, humiliated me, scorned me,  irritated, cheated, deceived). Notice that some of these words are slang expressions – when paired with “you”, these serve as a direct “hit” on the other party.

Words like right,wrong, always, never, forever are examples of black/white thinking which involves a rigid definition of what is acceptable and what is not. Whatever happened in the past has set the tone for the future and will reoccur. People cannot change their behavior, so are completely predictable. This thinking does not allow people to make new agreements with each other and move forward from a conflict.

Examples of neutral language:

“When you didn’t (pay your bill, show up for the appointment, process my refund etc.) ________, I was disappointed in your company. Maintaining good working relationships is important to me and my business reputation.”  You have carefully described the situation, what your reaction was and why it’s important to you.

The degree of emotion is this statement is considerably reduced; the language is clear but the emotion is communicated in a way that is much easier to listen to.  You may be 100% right in what you say, but the other party has to hear you first!

Some points to consider:

  • Take time to think about what you want to say, rehearse it if necessary. Ask a trusted friend how it sounds.
  • Try not to respond right away if you are confronted with “hot words” or a judgmental statement. This may be coming from a place of hurt or anger and the expression is being used to vent this feeling.  If you feel you are reacting, then breathe deeply for several minutes before answering.  You can also say “I need a minute here to think about what you said”.
  • Avoid “hot” words, use neutral language, don’t respond when angry or upset. Slow down your delivery. Take a break.  Get up and walk around. Breathe. Engaging your thinking brain will aid and assist you in conflict.
  • Remember this will take time to change but is well worth the effort!

Linda Varro
Juntura Mediation/Coaching