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Help! Four ways to keep your cool in a workplace confrontation

June 14, 2019 — Written by Molly Sands PhD

Picture this: you’re quietly working, enjoying a cup of coffee, when a colleague approaches. “I need to talk to you,” they hiss, folding their arms over their chest. Your heart rate spikes, your palms sweat, and your throat feels dry.

What should you do next?

In moments like these—especially at work—it’s hard to avoid fight-or-flight mode.

Scientifically, either reaction is perfectly natural: when we feel threatened, our brains flood our bodies with stress hormones. But of course, you can’t maintain successful work relationships by lashing out (fight) or fleeing the office (flight). When you’re confronted by an angry coworker, you need to be able to diffuse the situation—and protect your own sanity.

My academic background is in affective science, or the study of emotion. As a member of Humu’s People Science team, I apply emotion research to the workplace using micro-interventions—which we call nudges—to help employees feel and perform their best. That includes helping folks handle stressful, difficult situations. Based on my experience, here are four scientifically-backed strategies for managing emotionally-charged confrontations on the job:

1. Listen. Usually, the other person is upset because they have an issue that needs to be resolved. The best thing for you to do is to listen carefully and try to fully understand the situation. Even if it’s immediately clear you can’t (or won’t) fix the problem, listening is still the best way to move forward.

People often vent largely because they want to feel heard, or are seeking empathy. In a study of customers who were tweeting angrily at brands, simply receiving a response—even if it didn’t fix the problem—increased the customer’s brand loyalty. This applies to your personal brand too. Resist the urge to jump in with your opinion or start a debate and instead do your best to simply be present. In most cases, the content of your response is less important than simply hearing your colleague out.

2. Acknowledge how the other person feels. To help the other person feel heard, confirm that you understand their perspective. Use language that reflects what they said to you, and be careful not to minimize their emotions. Underestimating someone’s feelings tends to be far costlier than overestimating them. In other words, if someone is extremely upset, don’t say, “I understand that you feel inconvenienced.” It’s better to overshoot and say, “I understand that you’re devastated.” Of course, the best is to accurately reflect their feelings back to them.

If you’re upset about the problem at hand, it’s fine to openly acknowledge how you feel as well. Try something like, “I fully understand that you’re upset. I’m equally frustrated and share your concern.” Suppressing your own emotions doesn’t help anyone: when we try to hide how we feel, people usually perceive that something is off, and are then less comfortable around us.

3. Focus on the facts. A better strategy than emotional suppression is shifting your attention—and your colleagues—onto the facts. Instead of spiraling into negative thoughts or self-blame (“I must have caused this person’s anger by making an enormous blunder, like I always do, because I’m a horrible coworker”), try to map their feelings to the reality of the situation  Say the other person has communicated frustration. Can you figure out exactly why they’re frustrated? Is there something that can change as a result of it?

Focusing your attention on the need behind someone’s emotions allows you to take a more objective, detached look at the situation—and to better protect your own emotional well-being. (Related tip: it’s easier said than done, but try not to take any biting comments personally. Chances are the person is simply lashing out in anger, and doesn’t really mean what they’re saying in the heat of the moment.)

4. Learn from the experience, but don’t dwell on it. Once you understand the issue, think about how you might be able to resolve it. Maybe you can point the other person to helpful resources. Or, if you realize that you did make a mistake, own up to it. A simple straightforward apology is usually best. Something like, “I’m sorry I forgot to send you the draft.”

When you’re by yourself again, take a few moments to write down any valuable feedback you received, or lessons you might learn from the interaction. It can be difficult to process critical feedback in the moment, when emotions are running high, so commit to revisiting your notes in a day or two. A little distance can help you to recognize opportunities for personal growth.

Once you’ve taken steps to fix the problem, try to move on. A little bit of venting of your own (to a trusted colleague, minus the sweaty palms) can help you process a stressful situation or to receive some social validation, but too much can mire you in rumination—and bring down the people around you.

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