Tips to Avoid or Defuse Escalation of Workplace Conflict

Addressing workplace conflict can be difficult for employees and supervisors as addressing the situation may be uncomfortable. It is best to seek the guidance of an HR professional before engaging in a situation that may escalate further or if questions arise on how to move forward with addressing the situation. Here are some quick tips on how to avoid or defuse escalation of workplace conflict:

1. Understand that the issue isn’t the issue. How the issue is handled becomes the issue.

In workplace conflict, the issue isn’t usually the real issue. A situation that may seem to be the cause of an issue, may not be the real issue at all. Recognize that your response to conflict often becomes the real issue. The first act in de-escalating workplace conflict is responding to the initial conflict in such a way that your words or actions don’t lead to more conflict.

2. Don’t immediately respond.
When you find yourself in the middle of conflict, don’t immediately respond. If you do, you risk giving an emotionally charged response. Let the person’s words float for a few seconds before you respond. Really listen to what has been said with the intent to fully understand the other person.

Pausing for just a few seconds may help you take in what you’ve heard and it may help you center and calm yourself. You’re perceived as more confident and in control when you process your thoughts before you speak. And when you do respond, you’ll do so with more understanding, clarity and assertiveness because you’ve had a few seconds to gather your thoughts.

3. Ask three closed-ended questions back-to-back.
When a person is angry, they are stuck in the right side of the brain. The right side of the brain is the emotional side; the left side is the rational side. When a person is communicating from the right side of the brain, it will be difficult to de-escalate and move into resolution.

You must shift the person from the right side of the brain to the left side of the brain. You make this shift by asking the person three back-to-back, closed-ended questions—questions that can be answered with just one word. This technique moves people to the left side of the brain, quickly de-escalates the situation, and puts you in control by building a positive path that is impossible for them to disagree with. For example, you can ask questions (pertinent to the situation of course) such as:

  • Can you agree that you did not complete the project? (Yes)
  • Am I right in thinking that you like to get things done and may have just been overwhelmed? (Yes)
  • Even though I had to follow up with your team regarding the late project, can you see why I made the decision to speak to the team? (Yes)

These questions should (hopefully) lead the employee down a psychological path of agreement, if the facts of the situation align with the questioning.

4. Acknowledge Emotions.
There is something known as the communication chain. When people communicate, they expect the person they are communicating with to respond. This response is a link in the communication chain. A failure to respond to communication leaves the communication chain broken.

If a person expresses anger or frustration and you don’t respond to it, they may become more intense. This is because you have failed to acknowledge the conflict and the communication chain has been broken, placing them in the emotional right brain.

Excerpts taken from “How to De-escalate Conflict in the Workplace: 4-Proven Ways to Preempt or Defuse Escalation” written by Myra Golden and published by In2vate, LLC