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Six Steps For Defusing Office Conflicts

A little tension can be a good thing as long as you know what to do with it.

[Photo: Flickr user LaVladina]

There's no such thing as a conflict-free office, and sometimes a little tension isn't such a bad thing anyway. Workplaces without any conflicts are often filled with employees who've stopped feeling connected to their jobs, or who bury their resentments beneath the surface. But as long as people are still engaging with one another—even in ways that sometimes seem negative—there's always the possibility of a positive outcome on the other end, as long as you handle the friction wisely.

That's just one more way emotional intelligence comes into play in the modern workplace. You need people with strong interpersonal skills not so much to avoid conflicts but to defuse them before they escalate, then channel the source of disagreement into mutual understanding and meaningful connections between people. That isn't easy to do, but these are some of the skills it takes to pull it off.

1. Manage Your Own Emotions

Emotionally intelligent people’s awareness of their own emotional state helps them avoid reacting to negativity. If a situation has you feeling angry, wait until you've cooled off and can respond rationally. This is where the "take a deep breath and count to 10" advice still holds true. Most conflicts don't arise from urgent crises, even though high-pressure situations tend to escalate them. In other words, fighting about it won't help you make that tight deadline.

The key is to prevent the situation from worsening before trying to resolve it. You probably have more time than you might think in order to let everyone's emotions cool—including your own—before you can start working through the disagreement together.

2. Don't Take Things Personally—Even If You Have Good Reason To

Anger and other strong emotions are often ignited by something that reminds people of past experiences. That means that what somebody appears to be angry about may not really be the true cause—it's just triggered something else.

These don't need to be deep-seated psychological patterns that only a psychiatrist could root out, either. For example, someone who had a fight with their partner at home could inadvertently snap at a coworker that same morning. Emotionally intelligent people aren't shrinks—they're just aware of the most common triggers that tend to irritate themselves and others, and they can often tell when the reason somebody's angry has nothing to do with them personally, even if it may feel on the surface like it does.

3. Listen First, Talk Second

When you're angry—or dealing with somebody else who is—it's common to want to make your side heard. But instead of reacting to negative emotions, try to find out more about the situation causing them. Resist the urge to get defensive and instead ask questions that clear some ground for the other party to express themselves. Emotionally intelligent people don't just tune in to their own feelings, they also help others become more aware of how they're acting and feeling. By allowing the other person to simply feel heard, you can head off a nasty fight and open up a conversation.

4. Give It Time, But Don't Ignore It

Many people are uncomfortable with conflict and run at the slightest hint of it; they pretend it doesn’t exist or minimize it. That's not a good idea. The goal is to help everyone come away from the confrontation feeling better about themselves, not worse. A cooling-off period can be helpful, but it isn't a solution in itself—just a first step toward reaching one. Conflict rarely just blows over all on its own.

5. Practice Empathy

These first four steps may not be the toughest. If you've got a good share of emotional intelligence, keeping level-headed and giving others room to express themselves is often doable, even if it isn't easy. Genuinely empathizing with someone—especially someone who's upset with you and letting you know it—can be harder.

But the truth is that everyone's privately fighting a battle nobody else is fully aware of (that's just the human condition for you), and emotionally intelligent people are aware that others may be having problems they themselves have no way to gain access to. This recognition is itself a first step toward empathizing, though. It helps you be supportive of somebody who's treating you in ways others might find offensive.

Try to find out what's really going on, and know that you'll probably only ever get a partial picture. Then see if there's anything you can do to help. As you do, it's okay to set boundaries. While they're open to others, highly emotionally intelligent people understand their own needs and limits, too. They aren't pushovers and aren't easily taken advantage of. Sometimes it's perfectly reasonable to lend one hand but not both.

6. Look For Cues So You Can Be Proactive In The Future

One key to defusing office conflicts is to understand their underlying causes, which often follow patterns. When you sense someone going through emotional turmoil, don't wait to act. With experience, you'll get a feeling for what's likely to set one person off or stress out the next. So pick up on these cues before they do much damage.

Approach the person you're concerned is feeling upset, tell them what you've noticed, and show your intention to help out if it's in your power to do so. You'll earn appreciation, respect, and trust from your colleagues and fend off ugly fights before they start—by channeling their sources into conversations that actually get you somewhere, together.

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