Narrate the Process to Diffuse Tension
No workplace is perfect. There will inevitably be periods of stress or times when things go wrong. Maybe a disagreement with a colleague is ruining your team’s morale. Perhaps a deal you’ve been working on for many stressful months has fallen through.
When we are in a conflict or feeling under attack, strong emotions are triggered. We might become defensive and our natural human tendency to fight back kicks in. But reactions like these can damage our chances of success in the workplace.
As you know by now, one of my guiding principles is when in doubt, communicate. When a heated situation triggers strong emotions in you or others, narrate the process to diffuse the tension and repair the relationship.
Start by acknowledging what happened. Discuss the emotions from an outside perspective, as if you were a narrator in a story (examples below). Verbalizing your feelings – rather than showing them – will dial down the intensity of emotions and will open the door to a productive conversation.
If you have been triggered in person: Pause
As soon as you realize you are emotional, angry, pissed, offended or want to punch someone, take a deep breath. At first, it will be very challenging, but in time you will find it easier. Do not engage further in the attack-counter-attack cycle. Instead, narrate the process by saying:
- “Our conversation isn’t going well. I think we are both not really listening to each other.”
- “I feel very [frustrated/disappointed/upset] and I am sure you do too.”
- Then, listen carefully to the other person’s response.
If you have been triggered via email or text: Do not respond until you are calmer.
When you regain your calm, reply with a request for more context, ideally in person or by phone. (Because tone can easily be misunderstood in written communication, it is best to avoid this medium.) Try these conversation starters:
- When you said X, I got hurt and offended. That’s why I reacted aggressively.
- When you said X, I got very frustrated because…
- When I say X, I noticed that you become upset/defensive/frustrated. We may have some misunderstandings. What can I do differently?
Here’s an example from my work that you may relate to:
Whenever there was a large workload, one of my clients tended to appear stressed and appeared like he could not handle it. My client’s boss held back from giving him expanded responsibilities because his stress was so visible and the boss feared my client would break down.
When the client realized that his emotions were so transparent, we worked to first acknowledge what triggered these feelings of stress. We discovered that because of his strong desire to prove himself, he often took feedback as criticism, instead of seeing it as a gift. When feedback interactions triggered him, he practiced delaying his reaction and then re-engaging by narrating the process when he was calmer. As he mastered talking about his emotions in a non-emotional manner, his demeanor shifted. The boss began to notice and his confidence in my client’s abilities gradually grew. They collaborated more and within 6 months, my client was promoted.
What strong emotions do you feel frequently at work? Frustration, disappointment, anger? Use the conversation starters above and let me know how it works for you.