Diffuse the Situation: How to Handle Tense Workplace Disputes

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Tension will happen in the workplace whether we want it to or not. Although it's beneficial to give your employees an office, schedule, paycheck and benefits that will keep them happy while on the clock, tense situations and workplace disputes are a fact of life that you'll need to learn how to handle. Better yet, train your employees to use smart strategies to help diffuse the situation as well.

What Does a Tense Situation Look Like?

In an ideal world, everyone would behave in a civilized manner when communicating. They would treat other people with respect, never give off threatening body language or say anything to cause distress in another person.

But we don't do business in an ideal world, and a tense workplace scenario may look like an argument in which one or both people are raising their voices and getting unduly restless. Listen for rude, sarcastic or snippy comments or a tone of voice that is louder and angrier than usual. Look for signs of agitation such as flushed cheeks, increased sweat and tense muscles.

It's important to diffuse a tense situation so that no one involved feels threatened and to help calm down anyone who feels angry or agitated. Diffusing tense situations quickly can also help to set a precedent that unruly behavior is not tolerated.

Why Does Tension Happen at Work?

Employees may worry about their productivity statistics, feel like they can't meet an important deadline, dread giving a presentation to a client or even fear a layoff. And if they feel like another employee is to blame for their problems, a tense situation can occur.

On the other hand, conflicts that arise between employees represent a tense workplace situation that may start subtly and drag out for weeks at a time. If not spotted and addressed quickly, these disagreements can burst into an argument that needs to be diffused before it escalates further.

Tips to Help Diffuse the Situation

If an employee or manager approaches you with anger or tension, a productive conversation is unlikely to take place. You both need to relax in order to have open communication. And sometimes that starts with how you behave as the listener. For example, try your best to keep your body language open and relaxed and practice active, non-defensive and non-judgmental listening.

If you remain calm and don't rise up to their level of anger, people often will realize that they're overdoing it and bring their volume and tone down a few notches. Maintain appropriate eye contact to show that you're listening, and repeat their concerns or ask follow-up questions to show that you're really trying to understand them. If possible, show that you can truly empathize with their situation by telling them you've been in a similar scenario. Explain how it was previously resolved.

Sometimes, a tense situation arises when someone blames us for something or confronts us on an issue. Try to remain humble and decide whether or not you may need to apologize. If you goofed and caused a problem for a colleague or boss, own up to it. Give a sincere apology.

Diffusing Situations as a Third Party

If you're witnessing two people get into a heated argument or tense situation, you may need to help diffuse the situation to break their focus. Sometimes telling a joke can get groups of people to relax. Stepping in and asking to speak to one of the participants privately can help you talk to them about the root of the problem, allowing you to mediate. Recommend that they take a break, go for a walk and do some deep breathing exercises as well.

Unfortunately, as a small business owner, you may need to consider terminating an employee who routinely seems involved in tense situations around the workplace for your team's sanity and safety. Although it can be done, it's unfair to ask other employees to frequently diffuse tense situations.

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About the Author

Cathy Habas specializes in marketing, customer experiences, and behind-the-scenes management. Cathy has contributed to sites like Business and Finance, Business 2 Community, and Inside Small Business. She served as the managing editor for a small content marketing agency before continuing with her writing career.