During a conversation with a colleague, you stop following what he’s saying, and focus on how red his face is, as he yells at you about what’s wrong with your proposal. When you tune back in, you hear him scream, “It’s a one-sided, shortsighted approach that shows no respect for my team’s input!” You know you’ve hit a nerve, but you have no idea why. If you’re going to find a mutually acceptable path forward, you know you need to de-escalate this conflict fast. But how?
The bad news is that your instincts are generally useless in a situation like this. The good news is that you can counter your natural reaction — whether you’re more inclined to dig in your heels or run for cover — and slowly shift the conversation from aggressive and adversarial to controlled and cooperative. If you want to take a discussion from overly heated to calm and cool, here are several things you can do.
Don’t disagree. If you’re like most people, you’d want to spout a litany of reasons for why your colleague is wrong. In this example, you might contradict the substance of his criticism by listing seven areas where your proposal incorporates feedback from his team. Alternatively, you might attack his character by saying that his anger is inappropriate. But disagreeing with or contradicting your colleague will immediately escalate the argument.
A colleague’s emotional outburst likely stems from the perception that they were not being treated fairly. People who feel heard and understood don’t yell and pound tables. If you’re witnessing anger, there is underlying frustration, embarrassment, or a feeling of being neglected or ignored. Anything you do to minimize or deflect what your coworker is saying will only cause their temper to flare. On the contrary, if you demonstrate that you’re listening and genuinely trying to understand their perspective, they’ll have less reason to holler.
Demonstrate support. If you want to de-escalate a conflict, the very first thing out of your mouth needs to be supportive rather than dismissive. In the example above, your response to the “one-sided, shortsighted” comment might be, “I hear you. You don’t see your team’s input in what I just presented. You think this approach is shortsighted.” You’ll immediately see the effect of validating someone who has felt ignored: Their shoulders will drop, they’ll take a breath, and you’ll have a window to open a dialogue.
Watch your body language. You can demonstrate disrespect with your nonverbal behavior even as you’re trying to validate the person with your words. You might be saying all the right things but leaning aggressively into the table or speaking through gritted teeth. Or you might overcorrect your tone so that you sound so calm and dispassionate that it seems condescending to your colleague who is in the process of losing their cool. Your colleague will believe the tone and posture over the content. You will need to control your nonverbal behavior if you want to de-escalate the conflict.
To ensure that your nonverbal behavior supports what you’re saying, adopt a neutral posture (neither leaning in nor out) and tone of voice. 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.
Don’t lead the witness. It’s likely that you’ll be tempted to ask questions that are intended to get your colleague to think like you do. Although you might initially have some success with this technique, 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.
Instead of trying to sway the conversation to your point of view, dig in with an open-ended question to understand where your colleague’s anger is coming from. Start with a question based on something he said, such as, “You said the proposal was shortsighted, so what do you see as the longer-term issues we need to consider?” Listen carefully and reflect his answers back before asking another question.
Dig into the emotions. If you focus your questions on the rationale and objective facts of the situation, you’ll just get a convenient set of facts curated to support what your colleague feels and wants. You could go on for hours trying to make sense of facts that are nonsensical — because it’s not the facts that are at the root of the problem.
As you ask successive layers of questions, go beneath the facts and get at the person’s values and motives. If you’re getting an angry reaction, you’ve likely violated something that’s deeply important. There are a variety of questions that will tap into underlying values, such as “What is that about for you?” or “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. The questions are so neutral that your colleague’s answers will reveal a lot about what’s really going on.
Once you’ve identified the crux of the issue, all that’s left is the grunt work of finding a solution that’s amenable to you both. Although it sounds like that would be the hard part, it’s often easier than you’d expect, because you’ve already done the difficult work of getting the person to show their hand on the problem you have to solve.
When faced with an angry, aggressive colleague, self-defensive reactions will only make matters worse. Respond by signaling that you’re prepared to address the concerns and willing to get to the bottom of the issue. It will take restraint, but it will transform the situation (and perhaps the relationship) from conflict to cooperation.