When Conflict Escalates Emotions at Work
Not everyone deals with conflict the same way. Some people avoid workplace conflict at all costs, others tackle it head on almost becoming aggressive, some accommodate to make the conflict go away, and, others tend to collaborate and find mutually satisfactory solutions. Regardless of the style of conflict management people take on, emotions are often one element of conflict. After mediating hundreds of complex workplace situations (in a former career) I quickly learned that for many, fear turns into anger.
So what do you do if you are talking to a colleague at work and their emotions (or even your own) start reaching the point of concern?
Take a break, a time out. This sounds easy and obvious, but if it is so obvious and easy, how does this step get missed? Emotions are like a snowball rolling downhill. They are hard to reign in and stop. Managing emotions requires a high degree of self-awareness. If your colleagues emotions are picking up speed and intensity, like the moving snowball, it can be helpful to acknowledge the situation by saying something like “I can see that this is an important issue to you,” or “I understand that this issue is particularly frustrating for you,” then add something like “I want to give this conversation 100% of my focus. May we take a ten minute break so I can come back to this conversation fully present.” Sometimes it can help to say something like “I can see how very important this issue is, and, I really want to talk about this in a way that is helpful to us both. The emotions are rising, and if we could take a short break, it will help us both be productive in addressing the issue together.”
If someone is offensive, harsh, or downright mean, it is important to address this. Many people freeze at the thought of this. I have found this statement to work very well; it is free of blame and judgement but addresses the comments that were hurtful. “That didn’t land well for me. When you said XXX, I felt offended/attacked/hurt (fill in the exact word). I would like us to have the conversation without these types of accusations so that we can both say what we need to say in a way that lands well for each of us.”
When the conversation concludes, it is helpful to check in (e.g. in a few days) to ensure there is no “collateral damage” or residue from the conversation, and, to confirm that the relationship is intact.
To sum it up:
- Take a short break.
- Set some guidelines for how you communicate by addressing challenges as they rise.
- Follow up