How to defuse an emotional situation at work

How to defuse an emotional situation at work

Your colleague reacts inappropriately to a stressful interaction. How do you handle the situation?

It’s been an incredibly busy day – the work keeps piling up. Since skipping lunch you’ve been at it for five hours without a break. But no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to make a meaningful dent in the inbox. If your manager hadn’t taken the day off, she might have been able to mitigate some the stress. But right now it’s just you, your fellow workers and a Mt. Everest-sized pile of unprocessed job requests.

Your colleague who sits in the cube across from you is normally a kind, fun person. But today she’s really feeling the crunch. You can tell by the pitch of her voice and her exasperated sighs that she’s about to burst. Then it happens: She gets a phone call from an angry client who wants to know why his request hasn’t been completed. She tries to explain the situation to him, but he’s not listening. He wants his work done and he wants it now…at least that’s what you think he’s saying. Your colleague has her headset on, so you can’t hear the client. What you can hear is her voice getting louder and louder. Your colleague is losing it. She’s not only endangering her job, she’s making the office atmosphere even more tense and uncomfortable. You could ignore this – but doing nothing may make matters worse.

So what do you do?

We aren’t often hired for our ability to cope with emotionally volatile situations. But, according to Murphy’s Law, stuff happens. Even the best intentioned companies can’t predict every outcome and even the kindest people may have limits to their patience.

  1. Remain calm and professional

    When a skilled airplane pilot encounters heavy turbulence, she must become calmer. Her concentration must increase in order for her to navigate the sporadic bumping and jostling of the plane. The calmer and steadier you become, the more contrast there will be between you and your freaked-out colleague. Set an example of cool-headedness. When your colleague notices how much difference there is between her bluster and your chill, she may choose to follow your lead.

  2. Terminate the stressful communication

    Imagine trying to talk an army into calming down in the middle of a battle. Swords flash and guns fire –  pacifying anyone is going to be impossible. Your colleague is an army of emotions right now. Instead of saying “relax” or “chill out,” take steps to end the battle. If the antagonizing client is physically present, try asking your colleague for help in the copy room. Don’t deprioritize the client; just calmly state your purpose, say you want to help, that you want to address the client’s problems, and suggest he speak to another of your fellow workers. Most of the time the client will want to speak to someone else anyway.

  3. Take a brief walk with your colleague

    Righteous indignation demands we address all sides of an argument. Your colleague may be inwardly afraid that she’ll never be given another opportunity to be heard. But this is almost always not true. In fact, the more she emotionally escalates, the less impact any valid points she makes will have. To see this, she has step away from the fog of anger. And sometimes the best way to do that is to leave the room.We’re an incredibly adaptive species. Given different stimuli, we respond accordingly. Our moods may be altered by a simple sensual cue – a sudden burst of light, a happy song, a pleasant smell. If your colleague is freaking out at her desk, try taking her to the kitchen. If she likes coffee, pour her some. If it’s a nice day, step outside for five minutes. Let the environment do some of the work for you.

  4. Don’t engage, take sides, defame or gossip

    Do not relinquish that power. Your goal is not to be right, it’s to lower your colleague’s emotional temperature; to restore safety, productivity and sanity to your environment. Engaging in the argument will not help to accomplish that goal. Make a quick mental agreement with yourself not to state your opinion until you’ve had time to thoroughly consider all sides of the story (maybe after one or two days). After all, your opinion is low priority right now. As an outsider to the argument, objectivity is your greatest resource.

  5. Harness the power of listening

    Your colleague’s in fight or flight mode: her adrenaline’s up and her pulse is pounding. The high alert signals in her brain are sending signals to her hormones to prioritize survival. It’s not the time for life lessons. You may have the best intentions, but your advice will be wasted. Think of the times when you’ve been furious. Were you feeling particularly open to advice at those times? Anger is like a noose. Advice tightens the noose. Instead, offer release. Allow your colleague to speak and no matter how crazy she sounds, just listen. Let her know you truly hear her. You don’t have to agree – in fact, it’s better if you don’t.

By enacting these five steps, you may be able to prevent your colleague from losing her job and your fellow workers from feeling threatened or discouraged. Hopefully, when things are calmer, everyone will realize how good you were at deescalating the situation.


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