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How to expand conflict capacity in times of crisis

How much capacity do you have for managing conflict? Whatever your current state, you can get better. Here's a path forward.

5 min read


How to expand conflict capacity in times of crisis

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As trite as it sounds, there are always amazing personal growth opportunities in every crisis. Leading in a COVID-19 economy requires a higher level of conflict capacity than leading when things are stable. 

There’s never been a better time than the present moment to consciously increase conflict capacity. This post explains why the opportunity is now, and what you can do to increase your own conflict capacity.

Why now?

At the beginning of a crisis, people tend to band together and hyper focus on survival, but once the smoke clears, every shape and sort of conflict comes to the surface. Issues that might have taken years to see or address appear seemingly overnight in full spotlight.

Recently a middle manager said to me, “I dislike the new COO so much that I dread going to work. After two decades of using work to escape my unhappy marriage, now I have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.”

A common thread for this manager is the relationship issues at home and at work.

For the organization, multifaced issues are rising to the surface: Ineffective leadership, poor communication and an owner failing to prepare managers for a changing of the guard.

This new environment triggers the strongest emotions that lead to aggression or avoidance. There’s no time like the present for some intense, boot-camp style personal growth to expand conflict capacity.

What is conflict capacity?

Conflict capacity is the ability to stay with difficult situations without resorting to the three coping mechanisms: Fight, flight or freeze, all normal tendencies during stress.  (I can’t tell you how many leaders have reached out asking for help with anger management during the quarantine.)  When we are stretched to our limits, we exhibit impatience, anger, and defensiveness, not the traits we need to lead during times of crisis.

The truth about conflict that isn’t taught in the textbooks is this: All conflict is first about your own inner conflict, not just a disagreement with another person. The skill is about the ability to be present to difficult thoughts and emotions instead of reacting or retreating. Until you understand your own internal conflict, you’ll struggle to see that the root of conflict is always internal misalignment rather than dealing with high-conflict people.

How to increase conflict capacity: In order to expand your capacity, you have to first identify your patterns. Next, you must create a plan and build in some space between stimulus and response so you can change your programmed reaction.

Identifying patterns might be a bit emotionally painful, but try not to judge yourself. Instead, interpret your discomfort as becoming more aware. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge, so the first step is an acknowledgement.

For example, aggression. Several things can trigger aggressiveness including being tired, another person’s defensiveness or being unfairly judged.

So, write down your pattern to bring it into awareness. What is your trigger, and how do you typically react when you lose capacity?

Now that you know your pattern, create a plan. For example, if your usual response is to avoid someone, your plan is to stay present to them.  If they criticize you, your plan is to say, “Tell me more,” instead of retreating or defending. Then breathe.

The key is to train yourself to get in front of the “painful experience” instead of releasing your pressure valve or triggering your defense mechanism.

This is the moment that you create a space between stimulus and response.

Another way to build space is to buy time. If you start to feel the pressure build up and you feel the need to defend or get argumentative, simply say, “I appreciate what you’ve shared, and I want to respond, but I want to be thoughtful about it. Can we schedule time to talk tomorrow?”

Want to get there faster? Then you need to commit to a practice. Identify your nemesis. This is the person who drives you crazy. Now decide instead of avoiding them, to let them become your best teacher. This is all about exposure therapy instead of academic understanding. Expose yourself to discomfort, and use your plan to experiment to see if you can change your patterns.


In a time of crisis, we need stability, direction, safety and clarity. Without these traits, your relationship issues will come to the surface for attention. Once the immediate crisis is over and the dust settles, the spotlight shines brightly on inadequacies in our personal and professional lives. There’s no better time than a crisis to increase your conflict capacity.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011), “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015) and “7 Ways to Stop Drama in Your Healthcare Practice” (Greenbranch 2018) and an advanced practitioner of Narrative Coaching. Connect with Chism via LinkedInFacebook and Twitter and at

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