3 Ways To Effectively De-escalate Workplace Confrontations

by Mardi Winder-Adams 

It is one thing to have time to prepare for a challenging conversation, but quite another for a verbal ambush in the hallway, breakroom, or the lobby of your office. Unfortunately, your coworkers and employees often spring these loaded conversations at worst possible times.

Before looking at what works, let’s take a closer look at what will not help to take the conflict out of the conversation. Here are a few of the most common mistakes made when unexpected issues arise in a discussion:

  • Trying to shut down the conversation
  • Walking away
  • Escalating in volume and tone with the other person
  • Using sarcasm
  • Minimizing the issue
  • Becoming defensive

While natural reactions, they are not productive. In most cases, these choices lead to an escalation of the situation and limit the possibility of a solution.

The following three strategies help to calm the waters of a turbulent conversation. They are useful in personal or professional communication and easily modified to any situation.

Strategy 1: Ask for more information

When people are upset, angry, frustrated, disappointed, embarrassed, or displaying any other negative emotion, they use a part of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotion center of the brain. The hypothalamus is also involved. It controls hormonal release in the body that triggers increased heart rate, breathing, blood sugar, flushing of the skin, and perspiration we experience when we are angry.

To get people out of the reactive part of the brain and into the thinking part of the brain, asking open-ended questions takes the focus from the emotional reaction to a thinking response. You cannot answer open-ended questions with a yes or a no. Instead, they require the speaker to think before responding.

Rather than trying to shut down the conversation or jump in with your rebuttal, take the time to ask questions that require the formulation of an answer. Some examples of open-ended questions include:

  • What else can you tell me about ….?
  • How would you resolve this issue?
  • What other information can you share about this situation?
  • What other options would work?

Strategy 2: Avoid the dreaded “Why” questions

While how and what questions are ideal for harvesting details and information, why questions are a problem in any conflict communication. Why questions become accusatory very quickly, which escalates the other person and triggers a defensive response.

Listen to the difference when you read these two examples:

  1. I would like to understand this more completely. What else can you share?
  2. Why are you telling me this?

A is a respectful way to gather additional information and shift thinking from emotional to problem-solving. B sounds aggressive and demanding. Why questions make people feel the accuracy or the validity of what they are sharing is in question.

Strategy 3: Listen with all you’ve got

It is natural to start forming a rebuttal, objection, or argument when listening to someone who is angry and may not have accurate information or understand the situation. Think of when you were angry and someone immediately responded with their information. You probably did not feel heard, valued, or cared about in the conversation.

When we fail to listen, we fail to understand the reasons behind the anger, hurt, or frustration. Active listening is a skill you can develop in everyday conversations as well as more challenging discussions.

Active listening involves making comfortable eye contact with the individual, keeping your mind open to the information they are sharing, and looking for common ground. It means focusing on them and not on your inner thoughts and commentary.

Active listening allows you to paraphrase or summarize what was said, reinforcing to the speaker they were heard and understood. The summary should be a short sentence or two capturing the main points of the message. It can be followed with an open question to get more information or move into problem-solving mode.

The key to de-escalating verbal confrontations is to slow the discussion down and focus on the speaker and the message. Common ground and workable solutions only occur when all involved have the necessary information.


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