How to De-Escalate a Tense Encounter at Work

If you’re a conscientious employee who does their best in a job, it may come as a shock when a colleague loses their temper, or a boss cusses you out over a relatively minor issue. You may also wonder how to respond in that moment. What can you do there and then to de-escalate the situation, and how might you establish and maintain healthy boundaries at work, moving forward? 

4 Tips for De-Escalating Tensions in the Workplace

Being on the receiving end of another person’s pent-up stress and anger can be tense and uncomfortable, especially in the workplace. It may even trigger a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. People with untreated trauma issues can be more vulnerable to being triggered this way, but it can happen to anyone, as the body’s automatic defense mechanism in the face of a perceived threat. Almost immediately, our adrenaline kicks in, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and we begin to sweat.

When you’re experiencing these sensations, it can be easy to respond emotionally and impulsively in the heat of the moment. Do your best to resist this impulse and instead try these four steps….

1)Avoid the urge to blurt out an emotional response in the moment. You may be feeling hurt, fear, anger, surprise, or all these emotions. Keep them in check and don’t interrupt—when allowed to air, the other person’s anger should run its course faster. 

2)Take responsibility for what you can. If you made a mistake, say so, apologize, and do what you can to correct the mistake. You cannot control and are not responsible for the other person’s response, but by attending to your part of the problem, you are being part of the solution.

3)Cut the other person some slack. If this is the first time this person is losing their temper with you, avoid the temptation to take it personally. Chances are that their overreaction may have less to do with you and more to do with whatever else is going on in their life. If they are under more stress than usual, their anger may be an extension of that. This does not excuse their behavior but can help you detach from the hurt and anger that you may be experiencing.

4)Stay focused on solutions. When your boss or colleague over-reacts, it can be easy to get distracted by the words they are blurting out in their anger, so that you lose perspective about the real issue at hand. Keep the focus on correcting what may have gone wrong or what needs to be addressed moving forward. 

Exercising Healthy (and Professional) Boundaries 

Stress at work can cause anyone to lose their cool but taking it out on another employee or colleague is unprofessional. If an angry outburst is not just a “blip” and happens more than once, here are some actions you can take to set boundaries. 

  • Send a brief email to the person. You can name their unprofessional behavior and let them know that in the future you will only tolerate respectful, professional interactions. 
  • Whenever possible, limit your interactions to group meetings. 
  • If the offending person’s behavior was particularly egregious, it may be appropriate to alert HR to the incident.

Ultimately, professional boundaries are healthy ones. By keeping your cool in a tense encounter and exercising professional boundaries after, you’ll be doing a favor to your mental health and wellbeing. 

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Lee Clarke
Lee Clarke
Business And Features Writer


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