How to deal with a fuming co-worker

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Resolving workplace conflict is an inevitable part of the job for HR managers. Oftentimes, resolution is as easy as bringing aggrieved parties together in a neutral space to find an amicable solution. After all, everyone is on the same team.

But in the heat of the moment, with tempers flaring and any possibility of calm, controlled discourse thrown out the window, how do you take control of the situation and brings things back down?
Leadership author and Harvard Business Review contributor Liane Davey suggests five ways to de-escalate workplace arguments:
  1. Don’t disagree
“A colleague’s emotional outbursts likely stem from the perception that they were not being treated fairly,” Davey said. “People who feel heard and understood don’t yell and pound tables.”


Instead of listing reasons they’re wrong, understand that there is likely an underlying frustration, embarrassment, or feeling of neglect behind the outburst. Showing that you’re listening and genuinely trying to understand their perspective can go a long way.
  1. Show support
Davey explained that in order to de-escalate a conflict, the very first thing out of your mouth needs to be supportive rather than dismissive.


“You’ll immediately see the effect of validating someone who has felt ignored,” she said. “Their shoulders will drop, they’ll take a breath, and you’ll have a window to open a dialogue.
  1. Watch your body language
Nonverbal behavior speaks louder than words in some cases. Davey suggests that tone and posture matter more than content in convincing workers that you’re on their side.


“Adopt a neutral posture – neither leaning in nor out – and tone of voice,” she said. “Sit upright with your arms at your sides, and fight the urge to lean in, push back, or cross your arms in defense. Talk at the pace, pitch, and volume that you normally speak in. Use every cue you have to signal that this is just another conversation and one you’re comfortable engaging in.”
  1. Don’t lead the witness
Your instinct might move you to ask questions that lead the other to get onboard with your ideas. Davey says you should fight this urge and keep things open-ended.


“It could fan the flames and suggest that your initial attempts to validate the person were only self-serving ploys to make the situation less aversive for you,” she said. Davey suggests asking open-ended questions meant to illuminate their side, rather than reinforce yours.
  1. Dig into the emotions
Facts don’t fuel fights, emotions do. Assessing things objectively will hardly help in de-escalating arguments, Davey says. Instead, dig deeper and get to the root of the problem. She suggests asking questions like “What is the risk of that approach?” or “What am I missing?”


“Notice that these questions don’t explicitly ask for emotional answers but instead leave room for the person to express how they’re feeling or what they’re worried about,” she said. “The questions are so neutral that your colleague’s answers will reveal a lot about what’s really going on.”
 

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