Difficult conversations in the workplace can get emotional—but a shouting match isn't the ideal outcome. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Amy Jen Su shares tips from experts about how to keep a level head.
The office is full of emotional tripwires. High-stakes negotiations, difficult feedback, or strategic differences can cause conversations to take a heated turn. We've all been there—perhaps damaging an office relationship or saying something we regret.
Keeping things constructive and even-keeled requires awareness, says Amy Gallo, author of the "HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work." Monitor your body for non-verbal cues that you're getting emotional, such as shallow breathing or an elevated heart rate. These signs, Gallo explains, indicate that your "rational front cortex" is losing control and that you're finding it "more difficult to be your best self."
It's just as important to monitor the emotions of others to stay ahead of conflict, says Rick Juneja, SVP for Client Success at Opower, a software and services firm. "You could be heading down an unproductive path if you see the other person shift their weight, cross their arms, or start hurling questions at you," he notes.
Once you recognize tensions rising, take steps to get your emotions under control. Taking deep breaths, says physician and author Andrew Weil, is "a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system" that can help you calm yourself before you react.
Gallo also suggests putting your hand on a table, looking at art on the walls, or finding others ways "not to get stuck in your head."
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Reorienting yourself physically can help you regain perspective and remember that the goal isn't to be right—or the smartest person in the room—but to solve a problem, Jen Su says.
After you've calmed yourself and regained perspective, "create bridges" in the conversation, Jen Su writes. Let the other person vent his or her feelings, and focus on nonverbal cues to help the other person feel heard. "Suspend the need to be right and move to a more powerful place of listening," Gallo advises.
It can also help to own your own mistakes—if you've made them—and to seek out more information about the subject under discussion.
Finally, it's important to maintain a respectful tone even when differences can't be resolved. And if your emotions get the better of you, make a point of apologizing quickly to help things get back on track.
"While we can't change what's already happened, we do always have the choice to reach out, connect with others, and demonstrate a more constructive and committed 'Take 2,'" Jen Su concludes (Jen Su, Harvard Business Review, 6/9).
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