A little over a week ago, my wife and I drove our daughter from Indiana to Texas to begin her freshman year of college. On the return trip, we drove through Oklahoma. As is common this time of year, we encountered road construction marked with a sign similar to the one above, and I felt frustrated as I thought about the coming delay.
We then saw another sign with additional information. The sign with additional information gave us an estimate of both the actual speed and the estimated time in minutes that we could expect to drive through the construction zone, and I felt relieved.
The actual speed was much slower than the posted speed. The estimated time we would drive in the construction zone was longer than I wanted to experience. The delay was the same, and, still, I felt relieved.
At that moment I gained a powerful insight into heading off conflicts before they start.
As I wrote previously about why your natural response to conflict is probably wrong and how conflicts escalate, we often feel angry or frustrated as conflicts get started — just as I felt frustrated when I first saw the construction signs.
In my driving situation, the frustration dissipated when I got further information. The speed I could drive and the time I would likely spend in the construction zone did not change. The delay I would face did not change. Nothing about my experience would change.
The change in my frustration level came from knowledge about what to expect. And that is the insight I had about heading off conflict.
When you communicate clearly about what people can expect in the future — even when they do not like what they will experience — you will probably reduce the frustration and anger levels they feel as a result of the experience. By reducing their frustration and anger levels, you can reduce the emotional energy that they bring to their interactions with you about the issue in question. When you reduce the emotional energy, you reduce the risk that the communication will escalate to a destructive conflict.