Resilience and Wellbeing

Don’t fight it: Psychotherapists tips to ease conflict in a legal workplace

On top of being highly stressful and draining your team’s energy, workplace conflict can become a major distraction for your firm. 

Yet while our legal education equips us with technical competence, we’re rarely trained to be comfortable around conflict. So how should we manage our emotions and navigate differences of opinion?

We sat down with Steven Colligan and Kate Armstrong – psychological health facilitators – who share strategies you and your team can take on board.


Conflict is complex (and can be healthy), so don’t rush a solution

When conflict arises, we shouldn’t speed to a solution, according to Steven, psychotherapist and facilitator with FrontTier, a division of The College of Law New Zealand.


“If you're going to unpack the conflict, you need to be mindful of the nuance and history of what you're working with. Often there’s not just a functional conflict, but underlying psychological conflict too,” says Steven.


Consider an example: Your colleague might explode in frustration if someone always takes their mug in the kitchen – that's the technical or functional conflict. Yet underneath, they might be feeling undervalued or were recently disrespected – these are the psychological factors. 


Conversely, conflict can (at times and in moderation) be a healthy dynamic says Kate, psychotherapist and facilitator with FrontTier.


“As a society, we’ve developed some unhelpful connotations around what conflict means. Too often we’re afraid to engage with it as we think it will lead to blowing something apart.


“But when we engage with it and move through it healthily, it’s quite beneficial. It builds relationships and strengthens our personal connections,” says Kate.


Tips to ease tension in the moment

When we encounter conflict, we experience an automatic physiological and neurological response. As part of our stress response, our body sends a flush of cortisol and adrenaline to our brain and our neocortex shrinks – which controls logic and emotional regulation.


The result? It’s harder for us to behave and speak rationally. So in the moment, when you’re stressed and feel the pressure rising, Steven and Kate have a few tips:


  1. Remember to breathe. Take a moment to pause, take a breath and stay calm. When you take a breath, you calm the cortisol flow to your amygdala, which is the fight or flight part of your brain.

  2. Step away and regroup. Re-examine the conflict at a lower intensity. Give yourself time and distance to be curious about the deeper psychological factors that may have contributed to the conflict. When you're in the moment and tensions are high, it's difficult to think clearly when you're full of emotion.

  3. Reach out and connect. Our close colleagues and friends can help support us through the conflict. Reach out to a trusted peer or discuss the experience at your next supervision session.

Proactive strategies to help prevent escalation

While deescalating conflict in the moment is important, preventing escalation from occurring is even more valuable. Because once escalation occurs, it's often more intense and nuanced to resolve. 


Steven and Kate share some strategies to help prevent conflict from escalating:


  1. Build your emotional awareness and intelligence. The one thing you can control is yourself and how you respond. So ask yourself: What are my triggers? What am I bringing to the dynamic? What's depleting my energy? These are factors you can own and influence.
  2. Consider context outside of work. Steven and Kate often see workplace dynamics replicating family dynamics. So consider your position in the family and how you're triggered in certain ways at home. Re-examining the stolen mug example, the person might feel even more aggravated because they were the youngest child growing up and their cup was always stolen. Which means, although their anger level may seem high, it's theirs and it's valid. 

  3. Change your environment. If, after trying to ease the conflict, your external environment remains toxic, aggressive or non-responsive, then a tactic might be to remove yourself from the environment. This might be as major as changing workplaces or simply removing yourself from building conflict before it erupts. 

Steven reiterates that as legal professionals, we need to develop a level of comfort around conflict.


“Conflict can help firms avoid homogenised groupthink. We want people to be able to go: Well I disagree and here’s why. We want people to feel safe to raise alternate viewpoints in a productive, healthy way,“ says Steven.


Want to improve your psychological health?

Steven is Director of FrontTier, a collaboration with the College of Law New Zealand that integrates the latest research, to uncover the internal and external qualities that define holistic leaders and grow true wellbeing for your workforce. He is also a registered psychotherapist and organisational development specialist with over 20 years’ experience. Steven specialises in capability building, business transformation, change leadership, and human resources transformation. 


Steven is holding a ‘How to manage yourself and others during conflict’ webinar on 22 March 2022, exploring self-awareness and communication skills to resolve uncomfortable situations.


Looking for something else? Browse our full range of CPD courses.