How to avoid or deflect tense conflict situations at work

How to avoid or deflect tense conflict situations at work.

There has been much written and advocated on the appropriate approach to take before opening your mouth and causing hurt or anger in any set of circumstances.

It is often cited that the three key things to ask yourself are…

  1. Is it necessary?
  2. It is true?
  3. Is it kind?

However, what about when someone says something in the workplace which is inflammatory or hits a raw nerve? Or worse when a tense conversation gets out of hand? What approach can you take?

If you are in the thick of things and feel your temperature rising between you and colleagues consider the following;

  1. Acknowledge the tension, often this is the best way to diffuse it.
  2. Acknowledge and accept the other person’s points genuinely and if you are really struggling to understand where they are coming from, say that. Also say in your request for further explanation that you are not trying to be difficult, but rather understand their position better.
  3. Go back to the start. If appropriate, remind yourself and the other parties of the reason you are all present. Go back to focusing on the problem.
  4. Immediately address your body language- if your face or hands are giving you away recompose them. Smile (briefly, not like a Cheshire cat!) to relax your face and sit on your hands.
  5. Avoid using phrases like, ‘you did that’, ‘you said that’ make it less personal. Instead use team based pronouns. ‘The way it happened…’ ‘The company…’ ‘We all..’.
  6. Avoid adjectives to describe a person or an idea as ‘ridiculous’, ‘stupid’ or ‘crazy’.
  7. Apologise if you have used the above in the heat of the moment and acknowledge that this was not what you meant to say and rephrase.
  8. If you are still able to be self-aware and know you are near breaking point ask for a five minute break to collect your thoughts.
  9. If you feel you or other colleagues are still at loggerheads and behaviour is not changing, refer to any company values or mission statements to guide you on appropriate behaviour and focus.

If you are an observer or participant in a meeting and you can see the temperature rising consider the following points;

  • Suggest a break
  • Try and not say ‘Calm down’. That can make things a whole lot worse and people can even perceive you as patronising drawing you into the disagreement.
  • Ask if you can summarise both sides’ perspectives and get agreement on common ground and build from there. People in an argument often need reassurance that they are being heard.
  • Refocus back to the objective of the meeting or suggest you put the contentious issue aside for the time being to progress other points.
  • Suggest a separate time or meeting to address the sticking point to again allow other points to be addressed. A change of focus can often help diffuse tension.
  • Ask a question to establish clarity, in particular, if you think it would help one party get a better understanding of the other’s perspective.

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