Exactly what to say in these five difficult work situations to diffuse tension

This is how can you make things feel less awkward when coworkers don’t get along or a boss tramples on your ideas.

Exactly what to say in these five difficult work situations to diffuse tension
[Photo: RomoloTavani/IStock]

It’s no secret that work can be stressful. But it’s typically not the work itself that feels draining. It’s the tension caused by other people. Whether it’s a boss shouting at you, a colleague who disagrees with you, or a team that doesn’t see eye-to-eye, your workday can be filled with moments of anxiety.


Considering that we spend more than 90,000 hours of our life in the workplace, it’s a good idea to have a strategy for dealing with the most common difficult work situations.

Here are five tough work situations, and how to handle them.

1. Someone attacks your work

We all know the feeling of being embarrassed by a boss or a colleague who takes a pot shot at us or our ideas at a meeting. Whoever it is, you need to respond positively, not defensively.

Sure, you’ll feel hurt if your boss says, “This report is not up to your usual standards,” or if a colleague in a meeting pipes up, “You’re dead wrong!” We instinctively want to fight or take flight. Fighting creates embarrassment for us and discomfort for others. Taking flight means you will disappear from the discussion. Neither is a good course of action.

Instead, take a deep breath, have a receptive expression on your face, and wait for the speaker to justify his position. Once that happens, you can come back with a response that shows you have listened and are taking the high ground by confidently addressing any concerns that individual may have.

2. You don’t get along with a colleague

We’ve all been in work situations where we have to collaborate with someone who is not on your wave length, and the best response is to talk things out.


Let’s say you’re a copywriter who likes to work on your own, and your art director is an extrovert. The more she talks, the more unnerved you become. You think of going to HR to ask for a new partner, but chances are that will only mean that HR views you as a “problem.”

There’s a better approach: If there is a personality clash (or any other divisive issue), talk it out–just the two of you. Say, “There’s something I’d like to chat about.” Then dispassionately share your thoughts, and how the teammate’s behavior makes you feel. Discuss a solution that will work for you and ask for her support. And don’t forget to highlight the great things about your partnership. This conversation will clear the air and make for a smoother relationship.

3. There is no common ground on your team

Another disturbing situation in the workplace involves team dynamics that may lead you to feel isolated or marginalized.

Suppose, for example, that you don’t feel like you have anything in common with your team of direct coworkers. They may love to talk about their golf games and you couldn’t care less. But most people can find some common ground–it may be a show you all binge-watch, or maybe you have kids of similar ages, or vacation plans.

4. Senior executives make people feel afraid to speak up

While there’s lots of talk today about “flat” organizations, the reality is that most people still think in hierarchies, and that causes tension.

I saw that vividly when I spoke to a law firm last year. After my remarks, I opened the floor to questions, and only the partners spoke. The younger lawyers all stayed silent; clearly, the younger people were afraid they’d be judged by anything they said.


In such situations, senior management would do well to invite individuals to speak. “What’s your view on that, Janet?” one might ask. Junior colleagues should also work on developing the courage to speak up. For example, a young lawyer might have scored points if she had said, “Thank you, Judith, for your presentation today. Your book will be very useful to all of us because impromptu speaking is so much a part of our day-to-day communications.”

5. Someone makes an insensitive comment

Most of us have learned to be sensitive about race, gender, and sexual orientation. But occasionally there might be an untoward comment that causes tension. What to do?

You could respond with (justified) outrage: “I can’t believe you said that!” But such boldness could erode your relationship for the long term, even if you are right. I know, because earlier in my career I made the mistake of responding with an angry, “Take that back,” when my boss made a sexist comment toward me. My boss never forgave me.

Instead, explain how the comment makes you or others in the room feel by saying something like, “How do you think it makes me feel when you say something disparaging about women?”

These five situations are only a few of the tension-filled scenarios that take place within office walls. But they can be addressed–as any tense situation can–by remaining calm, taking a positive approach, and moving others to your high-ground way of thinking.


About the author

Judith Humphrey is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm headquartered in Toronto. She also recently established EQUOS Corp., a company focused on delivering emotional intelligence training to the fitness, medical, and business sectors