“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” may have been true in an age when epithets were flung from children’s mouths on the playground, but in business–especially online–words pack a lot more punch.
When conflict arises in the workplace, and words are exchanged in the heat of the moment, it’s likely people aren’t choosing those words carefully. That’s because our brains are working hard to protect us, even when we’re wrong or on the receiving end of criticism. Psychologist Daniel Goleman says, “Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival.”
Sharp words and criticism threaten our safety and security, which appear just above breathing, food, water, and shelter on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But while part of our brain is busy scrambling to react to the threat, the original criticism hangs on in a different region. According to numerous studies, our brains process negative data faster and more thoroughly, creating a “negative bias” that’s much more sticky than happy events or positive words.
Words can also be problematic during a confrontation for other reasons, according to Harvard Business School professor Linda Hill. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Hill said one reason is because when negative emotions are stirred up, we stumble or say things we don’t mean. Hill also believes that in those moments of disagreement, people get defensive and frame the issue in terms of who’s right and who’s wrong.
Finally, she says, people have trouble extracting the true meaning of what’s being said. When we hear words that contradict what we believe is true about ourselves, author Charles Jacobs says our reflex is to change the information, rather than ourselves.
It’s a challenge to keep your cool and say the right thing during a confrontation, but here are a few strategies that can help mitigate foot-in-mouth syndrome.
We know that our brains are also wired to reward us for communicating. As social animals, our survival depends on it. But Geoffrey Tumlin, communication consultant and author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating, says it’s often smart to play dumb: Hold your own tongue.
Tumlin told Fast Company that not responding immediately allows the person you’re talking to a little time to self-correct a half-baked observation and prevents an otherwise working relationship from being damaged.
We are often advised not to take things personally when they happen in a professional setting. But it’s hard to swallow and remember that when a person confronts you. The next time a conflict arises, take a deep breath and choose words that clearly address the situation, and not the other person (or people) involved.
Criticism focused just on the issue, rather than what someone else is doing or saying, separates the problem from the person and allows them to address the source of the conflict without feeling defensive.
Another strategy for avoiding conversational missteps is to ask questions rather than make statements, says Hill. “Instead of thinking about what you want to say, consider what you want to learn. This will help you get to the root cause of the conflict and set you up to resolve it.” Use words that indicate you are open to constructive dialogue.
Conflict devolves into an argument when people intentionally or unintentionally place blame on someone else. Hill believes using “I” can help the other person see that you are not blaming them for the problem. Also, she cautions, resist using words such as “You must be uncomfortable,” because putting emotions on the other person can just make them angry.
There’s at least one in every office: the person with the short fuse who starts shouting at the slightest whiff of criticism. Raising your own voice to match theirs never helps, even if you are making a perfectly valid argument. “When someone is upset, the more you talk, the angrier they get,” Tumlin observes, so keep your own volume down, or mute it completely.
Use attentive silence to signal that you are paying attention, says Tumlin. If you can’t keep quiet, say things like, “I hear you,” or, “I see this has really upset you,” and other phrases that demonstrate you’re listening without escalating the matter. If the person presses you for more substantive comment, Tumlin suggests saying, “I don’t know what I think about that,” or something else equally noncommittal, and then say you’ll get back to them in a while.
While it’s okay to walk away (respectfully) from a heated discussion from time to time, conflict can actually do some good in the workplace. Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman of the Boston Consulting Group believe that conflict actually makes employees happier and allows them to perform better. If cooperation is key to teams working together, it will also naturally generate conflict as employees compromise individual goals to produce specific results for the company.
“When you let conflict happen and sometimes encourage it, people get angry and confront each other,” they reason. “That, instead of convivial avoidance of the tough issues that would strain their relationships, makes them happier, because in the end they did difficult, important work that was meaningful and made a difference.”