Vail Daily column: The body language of conflict |

Vail Daily column: The body language of conflict

Hugging is my preferred means of salutation. The embrace of an old friend or a brand new acquaintance reestablishes or creates a quick emotional connection. Jumping straight into a hug short circuits any initial reticence existing between the embracers. It removes that awkward moment when the greeting parties try to decide whether a handshake, fist bump, or some other physical contact is appropriate. Often that circumstance ends with a half-heartedly performed ritual that leaves both persons embarrassed. That is no way to start an interaction. A smooth beginning sets the tone for success, which can be critical if the gathering is a settlement conference or other mode of alternative dispute resolution. Hugs and other overt and subtle body language can have as much impact as words on the course of a conflict.

Defusing Tools

A hug and a grin are defusing tools that even the most experienced sapper wishes he had in his kit. In a situation that is fraught with tension or animosity, both sides are expecting the other to come into the room like a freight train. To enter with a smile instead of a frown will disarm your opponent, putting them more at ease and more apt to cooperate. An atmosphere conducive to reasoned discussion is never a negative, even if your intent is to be firm in your demands. Strong and friendly are not mutually exclusive attributes. The other side may be so shocked by your calm demeanor that they may be hypnotized or otherwise lulled into complacency.

Communication Breakdown

Breakdowns in communication are at the core of many conflicts. Litigants feel compelled to push forward to trial so that they will have an opportunity to share their side of the story. Yet a judge is not the only person who can listen. The simple act of sitting in a room together and letting each party illuminate their viewpoint can be the catalyst for a resolution. As many husbands and wives can attest, there are many different forms of listening.

It is the active type that is the most productive in a dispute resolution scenario. This requires sitting forward with an engaged posture and maintaining eye contact with the speaker. Orienting your body in this fashion signals to the other side that you are truly interested in their perspective and forges a loose bond that can be built upon in the process of settling the matter. In contradistinction, reclining with your arms crossed and your eyes on the floor is an indication that the other person’s message or presence is disdainful. These negative vibes create a barrier that may prove impenetrable.

Checking your phone while the other person is talking is not only rude, it may compound your opponent’s feeling that they are being disrespected. A real or perceived discourteous attitude is a common fuel for the conflagration that is litigation. Fidgeting is not as plainly construed as contempt, but still creates a feeling of impatience that can increase the stress level of the room. A calm and peaceful environment is ideal as it allows the parties to relax and open their minds to creative solutions. That idyll is surely ruined by the repeated clicking of a pen or tapping of a foot.

Literal, Figurative Connections

Proper body position and control is important, and positioning within the room may be equally influential. Sitting across the table allows for straightforward eye contact, but there is a firm obstacle between the parties. Sitting next to each other removes physical and metaphorical roadblocks and the proximity allows for a natural rapport to develop. The connection between the literal and figurative is remarkably potent — sitting on the same side can easily transition into being on the same side.

End on A Good Note

After spending minutes, hours, or days together hashing out the issues, hopefully the matter will be put to rest. However, it may take more effort and more meetings to completely resolve the quarrel. In that instance, leaving each other on a good note provides momentum that will carry on the continuum of progress. When it is time to depart, hopefully each side feels sufficiently comfortable to leave with a brief squeeze and not a death stare. If the latter, it is probably prudent to plan for protracted litigation, as there is no confusing the message of that countenance. Conversely, the warmth of even a short hug will leave mental cues that suggest that the next meeting will not be something to dread but a time to which each can look forward.

T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril, LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456,, or visit

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