Last Friday, while on a weekly conference call, an issue generated enough heat to make one of the participants angry enough to leave the meeting. The meeting then proceeded without him (BTW: unless you are the boss, remember things don't stop just because you decide you aren't going to participate!).
After the meeting ended, I called him.
The first thing I did was to check to make sure he was okay. He was still angry, but had calmed down enough to talk about his behavior. If he had not calmed down enough to discuss the issue, I would have scheduled another call with him. While there is seldom a reason to try discussing an issue if the other person is too upset to engage in a constructive conversation, the issue still needs to be discussed as soon as possible.
The second thing I did was to apologize for allowing the discussion to escalate to the point where he felt it was necessary to leave the meeting. Every participant in a meeting has the obligation to call a time out if they see the situation is getting out of hand.
The third thing I did was to tell him how unprofessional his actions were--and he reluctantly agreed that walking out of the meeting accomplished nothing and made him look foolish in front of the other participants.
The fourth thing I did was to recommend a solution if the issue arose again: Ask for a time out!
I suggest this same solution to you whenever you feel you are about to lose it in a conversation or meeting or if you feel someone else is about to explode. Never feel the need to press on when doing so will only make the situation worse! Take a 15 minute break to allow everyone to cool off, collect their thoughts and become more rational about the discussion. As a meeting facilitator, I often call a short time out just to let the "heat of battle" dissipate. To continue when everyone is emotionally arguing their position is not only a waste of time, but can create even more internal barriers, based on the results of the defensive behaviors we all engage in, that can seriously bruise relationships and make reaching a decision even more difficult.
The Lesson: Remember, "Anger" is only one letter short of "Danger!" Rather than allow a situation to escalate to "Def Con 1" (maximum defense readiness), alleviate the pressure in a heated situation by following the actions of professional sports coaches: whenever there is a need to regroup or if things are getting out of control call a time out--even if you have to disguise it as a bathroom break!