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Managing Your Emotions During an Argument at Work

HANNAH BATES: Welcome to HBR on Leadership, case studies and conversations with the world’s top business and management experts, hand-selected to help you unlock the best in those around you.

When you’re in the middle of a conflict, it’s common to automatically enter a “fight or flight” mentality.

But HBR contributing editor and workplace conflict expert Amy Gallo says it is possible to interrupt this response and find a path towards a more productive discussion.

In this episode you’ll learn how to stay calm in the heat of the moment. First try to distance yourself from the negative emotion you’re feeling by labeling it. Then focus on your breath and your body. And if you need to, take a break. That will give you more time to process your intense emotions.

This episode originally aired as part of the HBR Guide video series in March 2022. Here it is.

AMY GALLO: Have you ever lost control during a heated argument at work and said or done something you immediately regret? We all have. While I can’t help you take back that unfortunate thing you said, I can help you make sure it doesn’t happen again. In this video, you’re going to learn how to pay closer attention to your thoughts, feelings, and even your body so you have a better chance of staying calm during a conflict.

Imagine you’re being chased by a bear. Scary, right? Now, think about a tense conversation or a difficult negotiation at work. This disagreement may be hard and even uncomfortable, but surely you’re not panicking like you were with the bear, right? Well, it’s not always that easy.

Our brain is constantly scanning for threats, and when it senses one, regardless of the actual level of danger, an alarm goes off. Whether it’s a bear or your boss, those sweaty palms, that knot in your stomach, the racing heart, it’s all part of your body’s ancient fight or flight survival mechanism.

The body makes a chemical choice to protect itself, and when that happens, rational thinking shuts down. And to make matters worse, thanks to something called mirror neurons, your counterpart can catch your stressful reactions and the conflict can spiral out of control. Luckily, all is not lost. You can learn to interrupt these physiological reactions right there in the moment so you can take the heat down in real time.

First, acknowledge and label what you’re feeling. Stressful feelings take up space and create noise in your mind. But as psychologist and author Susan David defines them, feelings are just transient sources of data that may or may not prove to be helpful. Thinking of emotions as data can help you be more objective about them.

For instance, saying to yourself, I’m having the thought that my coworker is wrong and I’m feeling anger, labels both the thought and the feeling. It creates some distance from the feeling so it’s easier to let it go. Differentiating your feelings is helpful, too. Get specific. Frustration is not the same as sadness or anger or disappointment. And understanding what caused it can help you resolve the situation.

When you’re feeling these intense emotions, it can be helpful to notice what else is going on in your body. Did your tone of voice change? What are you feeling in your chest or in your stomach? Is anything painful or shaky or tight? These are all clues that can remind you, oh yeah, this is what automatically happens when I feel threatened and I need to make myself relax.

What you’re doing with your body matters, too. If you’re sitting still, stressful feelings can build up. Excusing yourself to get up and walk around can activate the rational thinking part of your brain and help you process your emotions. Give a neutral reason and own it. You can say, I’m sorry to interrupt. I’d love to get a quick cup of coffee before we continue. Can I get you something while I’m up?

This quick break can also provide a much needed reset for the conversation. If taking a break isn’t an option mindfulness experts recommend anchoring yourself with small intentional physical actions, such as tapping each finger with your thumb or firmly planting your feet on the ground. Even these tiny actions can make a world of difference.

Visualizations are really helpful, too. Think of a person in your life who’s a calming presence or a place that helps you relax. Picturing these even for just a moment can help redirect your thinking and start to calm yourself down. A quick side note on your counterpart’s reactions. Remember those mirror neurons? Well, if you’re upset, the feedback loop needs your counterpart is probably upset, too.

It may be necessary to just let them vent. And while that may be difficult and uncomfortable for you, try picturing their heated and hurtful words just going over your shoulder rather than hitting you in the chest. If you can show that you’re listening without feeding into their negative emotions, chances are, they will wind down eventually.

Another tip we probably all know is to focus on your breath. You’re breathing anyway without even thinking about it, so pause for a moment and, well, think about it. What does it feel like to breathe in through the nose? Does it change as it passes through the back of your throat? What’s the quality of your breath as it enters your lungs? What do you notice?

Counting your breath or focusing on the rhythm or smoothness will start to lessen the feeling of panic and restore your ability to think, listen, and feel empathy. Another great tactic is to repeat a calming phrase or mantra. You might say to yourself, this isn’t about me, or, go to neutral, or, this is about the business. This will help ground you and calm those emergency alarms going off in your brain.

OK, let’s review conflicts are tough for everyone, and a hijacked nervous system shuts down your ability to think clearly, but you don’t have to be a zen master to learn self-regulation and to train yourself to respond instead of react. Acknowledge and label your thoughts and feelings. Remember, feelings are just data and may or may not be helpful. Differentiating and labeling them for what they are can make them easier to let go.

Take a break. Removing yourself, even briefly, can give you time to process your emotions and provide a much needed reset to the conversation. Take a brief walk or anchor yourself physically in order to jumpstart your rational brain. Use visualizations. Picturing calm people or places can help focus your attention in a constructive way. Imagining your counterpart’s angry words going past you can help neutralize their effect.

Focus on breathing mindfully. Pay attention to the quality of your breath and try counting out your breaths with different techniques. Repeat a calming phrase. It could be something neutral like, this is about the business, to help separate your personal feelings from the conversation at hand.

All of these strategies are based on HBR articles and they’re LinkedIn the description below. Do you have a tactic for staying calm in a difficult conversation, or maybe a topic you want us to cover as part of the series? Comment below. Thanks for watching. Bye for now.

HANNAH BATES: That was HBR contributing editor Amy Gallo on the HBR Guide video series. Gallo is an expert in workplace conflict and communication – and she co-hosts another excellent HBR podcast, Women at Work. Her most recent book is Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People).

We’ll be back next Wednesday with another hand-picked conversation about leadership from Harvard Business Review. If you found this episode helpful, share it with your friends and colleagues, and follow our show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review.

When you’re ready for more podcasts, articles, case studies, books, and videos with the world’s top business and management experts, find it all at HBR dot org.

This episode was produced by Amy Gallo, Scott LaPierre, Jessica Gidal, Anne Saini, and me, Hannah Bates. Ian Fox is our editor. Video by Andy Robinson. Animation and design by Riko Cribbs, Alex Belser, and Karen Player. Music by Coma Media. And special thanks to Maureen Hoch, Nicole Smith, Erica Truxler, Ramsey Khabbaz, Anne Bartholomew, and you – our listener. See you next week.

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