diffusing tense moments at work

How To Diffuse Tense Moments in Three Steps

We’ve been talking about what it takes for your organization to run like a well-oiled machine. In our discussion the “oil” is communication skills.  Previously, I wrote about three communication tips that grease the gears: listening skills, diffusing tense moments, and resolving hard feelings. 

There is no more critical time to use listening skills than when diffusing a tense moment. That “moment” may be a performance review, a controversial meeting, or a stressful one-on-one dialog. No matter the context, you need skills to ensure that this tense moment doesn’t over-heat, create sparks and grind the organizational gears to a halt. 

I won’t lie. Learning the skills to diffuse tense situations isn’t easy but it’s well worth the effort. Diffusing a tense moment boils down to three steps that keep the gears from gumming up. 

Controlling your own emotions

Stay calm. As the temperature escalates in the room, the other person (or people) may push your hot buttons. That’s the moment to take back control…not of the discussion but of yourself. Keep your own temperature in check. When your brain gets “triggered,” rational thought goes out the window. Your brain wants you to fight or flee. Neither help you diffuse the tense situation. You must keep calm so that you remain rational. Here are a few techniques to try. Observe which (or combination of them) your brain responds to most easily. 

  • Deep breaths. The moment you notice yourself getting tense or agitated, breath deeply. Take a series of long, slow, deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly while thinking about the exhale. Notice that your body relaxes a bit. Stay quiet, settle, and notice that your thinking recovers.
  • Take a short break. If possible, insert a short break into the meeting. Reconvene in 30 minutes to continue the discussion. The break gives the brain a chance to recover its balance. You de-escalate in the moment which also gives you time to think, consider and return to the discussion in a rational state. 
  • Buy time with questions. You WILL have to engage but you can buy yourself time to gather your thoughts and composure by asking clarifying questions. For example, you notice that the conversation is heating up and sparks are beginning to fly. Ask, “Tell me more about….” followed by their issue. This allows them to explain more, you to understand more AND it buys time. Employ the listening skills we discussed in the previous article to further clarify the points. While they speak, you have the break needed to settle your brain. 

What to say when the other person is emotional

Validate the emotion. DON’T stop reading! I know…the word “emotion” causes us technical folks take a mental pass. Even considering emotion in the workplace flies in the face of our logical, fact-based approach. I get it. At the same time, you know what it’s like to try to reason with an emotionally charged person. It doesn’t work. You return to rational discussion after you settle their brain so that they can think straight again. A science-based approach to calming that over-heated person is to validate (not ignore and not agree) their emotion. Yeah, it seems counter-intuitive, but it works. Here’s how. 

Listen to and observe the other person’s discussion. How would you describe their emotional state of mind: frustrated, angry, disgusted, annoyed, confused, worried? Find the word and reflect it back to them – calmly. 

“You sound frustrated by this change of direction.”

“It seems that you are worried about your role going forward.”

“Listening to your description of the problem, you seem angry to be put in this position.”

Validation requires calm acknowledgement of their emotional state. The research is clear: validation connects with the brain of the upset person and helps their nervous system to calm. Suppressing or ignoring their emotion aggravates the brain. You don’t need more aggravation. Suppression sounds like this:

“You’re getting upset over nothing.” 

“Don’t worry. It will be fine.”

“You’re over-reacting.”

Can you hear the difference? In the first examples, you explicitly validate the emotion and in the second examples, you invalidate the emotion. The human brain only settles with validation. This technique may stretch your comfort zone and give you a new powerful tool. 

Validating emotions and coming to a resolution

Nudge the conversation forward. The goal is to bring the conversation back to the point that needs resolution. That nudge comes after the other person has calmed down and is able to think rationally. With a bit of practice, you can combine validation with that forward nudge. See if you can hear the validation AND the nudge in this example. 

You sound concerned about the impact of this project on your workload. That’s a reasonable concern. Let’s talk more about the specifics to determine the best way to manage it all. Tell me more about your concern and the specific workload problem.” 

In this example, the orange text is validation and the blue is the rational nudge forward. You cool down the discussion (via validation) AND move forward with calm steps. Here’s another example. 

I can tell this is an upsetting change. Change isn’t always easy. Say more about the specific ways this change impacts you and what about the change is worrisome.”

By staying calm and validating, you settle the chemistry in the other person’s brain so that there’s a chance at rational conversation. It’s this approach that greases the gears so that the organization doesn’t get sidelined by frozen gears but rolls forward without over-heating.


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