For many years I have offered an introductory workshop on conflict entitled, "Conflict: Fight, Flight, or Opportunity?" In it, I explain that many people engage conflict with a flight or flight response and that there are better choices. However, even if I can sell you on the idea that working constructively with conflict is possible, that doesn't mean it's easily accessible.
Three weeks ago I did a workshop on facilitating hard conversations about aging in community (at the 2016 Aging Better Together Cohousing Conference) in which I laid out the importance of getting all the hard stuff out on the table, so that it could be understood and worked with and one brave woman in the back of the room asked, "I understand why you're telling us it's valuable to get strong feelings expressed, but they scare me to death. How can I change my reaction?"
What a great question!
First of all, it's not hard to understand how this could happen. In the absence of sufficient clarity, skill or courage, working with conflict can be chaotic and dangerous. People can get seriously hurt, and it doesn't take many experiences like that until you've learned to be afraid of it. Thus, rewiring one's response is going to require a steady diet of positive experiences—where engaging emotionally enhances connections rather than frays them.
Here are some things you might consider, all calculated to help you make the transition to being less afraid.
o Secure a Buddy Who is Not Afraid
One of the quickest ways to get traction on this dynamic is to identify someone else in the group who is not overwhelmed in the presence of strong feelings, and ask them to help you breathe through it when decibel levels rise and your sphincter starts to constrict. Ask that person to check with you whenever temperatures rise in the room, to help you avoid overwhelm (it's important to keep talking) or to get unstuck if your cylinders have already frozen. The idea here is that talking with a single trusted person will be more accessible than speaking in front of the whole group—or to people in distress.
o Support the Group Being Willing to Engage
Even ahead of completing one's personal work, it's possible (desirable?) to advocate for the group addressing the issue of what it wants to do when strong feelings emerge. (Hint: doing nothing is a poor choice.)
In my experience it is next to impossible to turn this dynamic around unless the group explicitly gives the facilitator (or someone else in the group with sufficient skill and moxie) the authority to engage the protagonists when conflict emerges, and this need to be in place ahead of the conflict—not established in the moment of crisis. Hint: It will probably not be enough to simply sign a blank check; it will serve the group well to establish ahead of time the menu from which the facilitator may choose how to engage with the conflict. There are a handful of decent options in this regard. Don't worry so much about getting the "best" one named. It will go a long way if you have a few named and make sure that the facilitators have the skill to execute them.
o Doing the Personal Work
There can be considerable ore worth mining if you're willing to dig down and look at what your patterned response to conflict is and how that does or doesn't serve you. What does the fear protect you from? What is the bad thing that will happen if the fear goes unchecked? Is this response working for you? What would you prefer your response to be?
Though this work is not simple, it's doable and can lead to liberating yourself from unhelpful patterns. Sometimes professional help is beneficial in this effort.
o Develop a Body of Positive Experiences
In the long run, perhaps the surest way to turn this around is to place yourself in groups where there is a commitment to engaging emotionally, for the purpose of accumulating personal experiences that contrast with the poor ones (where people got hurt when strong feelings were expressed and the group was left in a debilitated state) that are the basis for your patterned response.
By supporting your group turning the corner on this (by learning how to engage constructively in the presence of strong feelings and having the will to attempt it) you are putting yourself in position to have new and better experiences. Ultimately, a string of positive experiences will help you let go of your old fears (because it's old news) and will reinforce your desire to engage.