How to De-Escalate a Situation at Work

By Mariah Collins, SHRM-CP on May 31, 2023
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In an ideal world, we would never have to face conflicts at work, but in the real world, we do. Disagreements have the potential to drive a wedge between teammates—or worse, totally derail a project.

But when a manager or an empowered member of the team steps in at the right time (and in the right way), conflicts can prove to be helpful in highlighting deficiencies and dysfunctions before they spiral out of hand. 

Knowing how to de-escalate a situation at work is one of the most helpful skills a manager can learn and sharpen. In this post, I’ll cover a few of the top tips I share with organizations. Add these conflict de-escalation tools to your employee relations toolbox: 

Six Leadership Skills No Good Manager Should Be Without

1. Learn Your Team Members’ Communication Styles 

In order to de-escalate a conflict properly, you’ll need to know how to approach and communicate with individuals who are passionate, heated, and potentially upset. Communicating with people in this state is made much easier if you can understand both (1) what their objectives are and (2) how they’re approaching the conflict. Neither of these points is always obvious. 

There are two general “camps” in which your team members fall: Avoiders and Seekers. Avoiders are those who will go to great lengths to steer clear of conflicts. While it can be hard to detect that a disagreement is brewing when you’re working with an Avoider, there may still be signs.

Clues that an Avoider is reaching the end of their rope include their withdrawal from a project or their silence surrounding certain topics. When this occurs, reach out to the team member one-on-one and ask how they believe the project or teammate relationship is going.

RELATED:Pre-Employment Personality Tests - Are They an Effective Tool? >> 

Find out if the team is easy for them to work with, whether they feel their opinions are being heard, and if they have anything they’d like your help with. As a manager, you are in a unique position to advocate on your team member’s behalf. 

When a Seeker is experiencing conflict, it’s a lot easier to notice. Seekers are characterized by their “brutal honesty” and love for debate. When communicating one-on-one with a Seeker, understand that they often see conflict as productive, but may need help staying within the lines of helpful language and behavior.

These team members can come across as loud and pushy at their worst, but above all, they are passionate about their goals. As their manager, it’s your job to speak with them privately, help them navigate heated disagreements without being overly critical, and re-direct their passions into a productive channel. 

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2. Encourage Everyone to Take a Pause Before Responding 

When tensions are running high and it’s clear that certain members of a team are taking things personally, it’s okay to take a break. Not every disagreement has to be addressed, discussed, and resolved in tight succession.

It’s often helpful to allow those who are at odds to take a step back and breathe. Don’t be afraid to initiate a cooling-off period and use the time to connect with parties with opposing viewpoints individually. 

RELATED: What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why Develop It Among Your Team >> 

3. Re-Center the Team’s Shared Goal 

If two members of your team seem unable to communicate their ideas without offending one another, you can de-escalate the conflict by speaking with the parties one-on-one and relaying notes or messages between them. Communicate each party’s goals, objectives, and desired results to the other, highlighting which of these items the parties have in common. 

Without speaking poorly of the other party, show each team member that you can appreciate why they’re upset or withdrawn. Don’t dwell here, however—keep the conversation moving and avoid turning your one-on-one meeting into a venting session. Remind everyone that the ultimate goal should never be determining who was “right” and who was “wrong,” but rather, completing the project, preserving the parties’ professional relationship, and moving forward without resentment. 

RELATED:Five Proven Tips for Building Strong Employer-Employee Relationships >> 

4. Listen & Show Compassion & Understanding To All Parties 

When you’re de-escalating a situation, be fully present and hear what others are saying. There’s a difference between just listening and truly listening to understand. Giving a teammate your full attention means focusing on how they feel and what they’re trying to get across, instead of thinking of the next thing you’d like to share or why they’re missing your points. 

Compassionate listening doesn’t mean you have to stay silent. It’s a great idea to ask kind and clarifying questions when necessary to help you understand a team member’s point of view. After speaking with team members, thank them for their honesty, candidness, and willingness to work through conflict. After all, conflict can be productive when it’s handled with professionalism. 

RELATED:7 Active Listening Techniques & 5 Ways It Benefits Your Workplace >> 

Axcet HR Solutions: Your Partner in Training and Development, Employee Relations & More 

Axcet HR Solutions is a full-service Professional Employer Organization. We work with lean organizations that are focused on growing and scaling their core business. Whether you need assistance managing your day-to-day employee relations goals or are seeking customized leadership and training solutions, the Human Resources Experts at Axcet HR Solutions have you covered. 

Leadership training and employee relations are just the beginning of what we can help with at Axcet. To find out how we can support your small business, reach out to our experts today.

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