My knee can forecast the weather. Seriously. A doctor once told me that when a low-pressure front rolls in, the air isn’t the only thing that gets unstable. Apparently abused cartilage takes advantage of the change, making me a little unstable, too.

Conflict is a lot like a storm front. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere and surprises us, but most of the time we can see the clouds building on the horizon and sense the change in pressure (and in my case, feel a joint start to swell).

We’ve got clients that do more than just weather conflict; they actually leverage high-pressure situations to their advantage! Here are a few things we’ve picked up from watching these “storm chasers” in action:

Pause: An attorney I’ve worked with had a saying: “Nobody talks, everybody walks.” His intent was noble in that he believed unchecked blabber in a deposition leads to things you don’t mean and wish you never said. This principle is graphically portrayed in commercials for Twix candy bars (“Need a minute?”). When conflict happens, take a long, slow, deep breath. It will help clear your head and allow for a more thoughtful response.

Listen and learn: Tension forces us to revert to our dominant personality trait. We can’t help it; it’s just a default setting. Listening for style cues in an exchange will help you frame a response. Are they looking for the bottom line or do they want the details? Are they asking about process or the responsible party? Listen to the words they choose to frame a question. If I asked you a question starting with the word “what,” chances are I want to get straight to the point. “How” questions lead to a process answer. “Why” questions demand an analytic response. “Who” questions beg for a person’s name. A response consistent with a question’s framing lowers tension, aligns intent, and keeps the conversation on track toward a resolution.

Just do it: Tom Hagen, Vito Corleone’s “consigliere” (legal counsel) in the first “Godfather” movie had a great “timing” line: “Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news at once.” Bad news never gets better with time. However, immediate notification gives everyone more time to do something about it. Even if you know the reaction will be ugly, it’s better to provoke an angry response than let things fester.

Get to the yes: “Positive expectancy” is speaking in terms of the desired result. All too often, we get a dose of TMI when we ask a simple yes or no question. In conflict, focus on what can be done, even if it’s a small thing like continuing the conversation. A small “yes” sets the stage for another “yes” and keeps both parties thinking about solutions.

Conflict, like a weather system, has warning signs. We can heed the signals or choose to get soaked. Many of our clients have successfully used these simple steps to keep ahead of an impending storm. My knee should be so effective…

What works for you?