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How to defuse a workplace argument

The most effective way to calm an argument: Try to see it from the other point of view.
The most effective way to calm an argument: Try to see it from the other point of view.
Published May 4, 2015

It's bound to happen eventually: You'll get into an argument with someone at work, whether it's over a project, a lost stapler or a parking spot. If not handled well, arguments can turn into fights and fights can become ongoing battles.

How we handle arguments with coworkers can have a big impact on how well we do our jobs, so it's key to figuring out how to defuse a tense situation — or ideally — to avoid things getting to a boiling point, says Piera Palazzolo, vice president of marketing at Dale Carnegie Training in New York.

"We spend more time at work with our coworkers than we do at home, so you have to try to make it work," she said.

The most effective way to defuse an argument is to try to see it from the other person's point of view.

"Ask them what is it about this topic, this project, this situation that has them feeling differently than you. Be genuinely interested in what they have to say," Palazzolo said.

"You don't have to agree with them but you have to try to show respect for their opinion."

After hearing them out, if your mind still isn't changed, it's okay to say so.

"Tell them, 'I respect your opinion but I just don't see it that way, here's why,' " Palazzolo said.

If you do get to the point where you're losing your cool, step away, she added. And if you blow up at a colleague — no matter how valid you think your argument is — apologize. "Be honest: 'I lost my temper, I regret it.' "

Another tactic that goes a long way not only toward defusing an argument but toward earning long-term respect is to admit when you're wrong, she added. "It takes a big person with a lot of confidence to admit you're wrong, but it goes so far in building good relationships."

And when you feel yourself veering toward a situation that is going to blossom into an argument, try to change the subject, Palazzolo said. "You can say, 'Let's park this for a minute and come back to it later,' " to try to regroup.

Of course, not all workplace arguments are created equal. An employee who tends to argue with customers or clients has to be steered toward more positive approach, Palazzolo said.

"Try having them role play, so they can see how they sound to a client," she said. "Try to help them say the same thing without blaming the client, because arguing with customers is no way to win business."

Bosses set the tone for what's tolerated in an office, Palazzolo said, and supervisors who see subordinates constantly arguing have to nip the behavior in the bud or risk damaging the workplace environment.

"You become kind of like a referee; you don't want to take sides," she said of a supervisor with squabbling employees. "Speak to them separately, set some ground rules and talk to them about their behavior."

Ideally, a supervisor would encourage people to get to know each other outside the office or try to find ways to separate employees who just can't get along.

Whatever the situation that leads to arguments, Palazzolo said trying to see things from the other person's point of view goes a long way.

"No one wants to work in an environment where everyone is always arguing."