How to Handle a Tense Situation at Work (Even When Working Remotely)

We already talked about how to communicate more effectively and avoid arguments at work. But what should you do when all strategies fail, and you find yourself in the middle of a tense situation at work? Reading the advice we compiled in this article will hopefully help you navigate these muddy waters.

Handle a tense situation at work even when working remotely

Choose the right words

First, you should be aware that a tense situation among coworkers or even work conflicts are very different from personal ones. Arguing with a colleague is not like arguing with your life partner or a close person who knows you donít actually mean the words you said when you were angry.

Your coworkers respect you, some might even like you, but they donít love you. There is no safety net to catch your words and no excuses to diminish their importance. All your coworkers know about you is what you tell them.

So here are some dos and doníts regarding what you should and shouldnít say during a work argument:

  • Donít attribute emotions to other people by saying things like “you must be very uncomfortable about this
  • Donít invalidate peopleís feelings, experiences, and performances with phrases such as “your experience in this field is limited soÖ” 
  • Donít yell or be disrespectful, no matter how angry you are
  • Do say how you feel about the matter
  • Do ask questions and try to understand 
  • Do present your arguments as options, not sole solutions.

Besides carefully choosing your wording, there are some other strategies you should consider to help you navigate such a tense situation and resolve workplace conflicts. 

Control your emotions

Our brains process disagreements as threats, as if the other person is trying to take something away from you. And in a sense, thatís valid since not being right threatens to steal away your power. As a result, it triggers a fight or flight response. This affects your prefrontal cortex, the evolved part of the brain that is responsible for rational thinking. During a work conflict, itís imperious to prevent that from happening, so here are some strategies you should apply to control your emotions: 

Breath

When you feel youíre literally getting heated, take a short break and focus on breathing. Feel the air passing through your nostrils, down to your throat and filling your lungs. 

Focus on your body

Sitting down during an argument makes emotions build up, causes your muscles to tense and your back to stiffen. Help yourself out of that state by focusing on your body.

Relax your muscles, then try standing up and walk around for a bit if thatís possible. If not, use your tactile senses to create sensations that will help you stay grounded. Rub the sole of your shoe with your toes, or touch each of your fingers with your thumb.

Acknowledge your feelings

During a tense situation or heated disagreements, emotions and feelings mix up with your thoughts and it becomes hard to distinguish among them. That leads us into making emotional decisions that might not have the best outcome.

Therefore, itís important to acknowledge and label your feelings, while trying to identify the reason why you are feeling that way. If you are angry, think of what part of the whole situation is making you feel that way. Acknowledging your feelings creates some space between you and your emotions and makes it easier to let them go away. 

Take a break

This sounds very simple and makes a lot of sense, yet itís rarely used during arguments. However, taking a short break – going to the bathroom, getting a glass of water, or just going outside for a breath of fresh air – can help everyone cool down. When you get back to discussing the matter, everyone will be calmer and more likely to compromise.

Control your addiction to being right

One of the most powerful reasons your brain chooses to go into fight mode instead of other options is its addiction to being right. You might think thatís just a saying or an excuse, but actually, when you win an argument, your brain secretes the hormones adrenaline and dopamine, which make you feel powerful, dominant, and accomplished. So you get high on being right since the neurochemical processes it triggers are similar to those given by drugs, coffee, or sugar. Thatís what makes it literally an addiction

However, just as much as our brains love adrenaline and dopamine, it also likes another hormone called oxytocin. This is strongly related to our prefrontal cortex, the part we mentioned earlier as being responsible for reason. Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone, increasing our empathy, openness to communication, and trust, all of which have a positive impact on human behavior. 

So, your mission is to control your addiction to adrenaline by replacing it with oxytocin. Next time you find yourself into a situation that could lead to conflict, try applying these strategies: 

Set prior rules

Setting rules before a meeting can save you a lot of trouble. Make sure you give everyone enough time to talk without being interrupted. Have people take turns talking. And ask everyone for feedback and suggestions. If things didnít turn out as good as you were hoping, try doing better next time. 

Active listening

Instead of listening to reply, you should listen and actually try to understand what the other party is saying. Practice empathy and learn about their point of view instead of dismissing it for not aligning with your perspective. Here are more tips and tricks on improving your listening skills.

Think about the future

When you are caught in the heat of the moment, itís easy to lose sight of the greater picture. You stop thinking about anything else besides now and then.

Human feelings are dynamic and rarely stay the same as time goes by. Try to remember a fight you had last year and compare the way you felt then and how you feel now. Now you probably think it was a silly disagreement that got out of hand. But at that moment, it seemed like itís everything that matters and life cannot go on until things are settled and youíve proven your point. 

Harvard researchers discovered that people are so aware of this that it even works as a strategy to defuse current arguments. Instructing a group of people to think of a recent argument and the way they might feel about it in a year, they found out that everyone was more likely to take a step back and diminish the importance of the arguments. 

So from now on, whenever you are involved in a tense situation or even a conflict at work, hit the break for a moment. Grab a pen and a paper and write down how you will feel about it in a year from now. This will help you put things in perspective and see the greater picture, in which your current dispute is less significant than it seems now. 

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