Getting Emotional: Handling Conflict at Work

Posted on January 8, 2007. Filed under: Blog--All categories, Management development |

When you think of “getting emotional,” what types of emotion come to mind? Is getting emotional a bad thing? What about at work?

I’ve been asked to write a how-to article about neutralizing emotions during a conflict at work. As I’m preparing to write this article, I have to ask: why is emotion during a conflict a bad thing? I don’t think it is. I think what matters more is how one handles that emotion. Some people say it’s a matter of acting like an adult. What does that mean? If I were to ask the next 50 people I ran across in the course of doing business whether they act like adults at work, I suspect they would all say “yes.” So acting like an adult isn’t the answer.

If we were to operate under the premise that showing emotion at work is a bad thing, that would mean we couldn’t express joy or enthusiasm or delight or disappointment or sadness–or any other emotion. We couldn’t smile or frown. If we couldn’t express emotion we’d be frustrated every day, which would itself lead to a display of emotion whether we liked it or not!

So I’m back to the idea that it’s not that we shouldn’t get emotional at work; rather it’s how we handle that emotion that can make or break our success. Uncontrolled displays of emotion at inappropriate times are what will hurt us career-wise. Angry outbursts, slamming fists, screaming fits–all of those are pretty much deal breakers when it comes to that next promotion. Likewise, giggling–a nervous response for many people–at inappropriate times is equally damaging to our credibility and professionalism.

Handling emotion is difficult; it requires a self-awareness of our responses in situations, a recognition of the triggers for those responses, an acknowledgement that some of our responses may be inappropriate, and an ability and willingness to develop control systems and alternatives for those emotions.

Usually emotional responses occur when we take something personally, like criticism about a project we’ve been working on or comments made by a coworker about our work. If we take these sorts of comments personally, our natural response is to protect ourselves. That protection may come out as an angry or defensive retort, or it may come out as a counter-attack. When that happens, our emotions have gotten away from us and taken control of us. Once those words are out of our mouths, we can never take them back and the damage–whatever it might be–is done.

I teach my clients a process to ensure we don’t say things we’ll later regret. That process looks like this:

First, breathe. Take a deep breath in order to help diffuse the adrenalin that is coursing through your body and initiating your fight-or-flight response. Breathing might seem like a silly first-step, but breathing deeply and evenly is essential to controlling your initial response.There’s another benefit to breathing: while you are breathing, you cannot say something you will later regret. So the deep breath allows you time to think and choose the response you want to give rather than blurting something you really didn’t want to say.

Second, ask questions. As a way to continue to buy yourself some time to get your emotions under control, ask questions to help you gain clarity in the situation. It may be that the answers to the questions help you understand the reason for the other person’s attack. Understanding their reasons may help you gain awareness of a situation you really should pay attention to.

Third, move. Move the focus of the situation, conflict, or attack off of you personally and onto your position. Clients who practice this third step report a much improved ability to handle conflict at work. For instance, if one of your coworkers attacks your performance on a project your initial response might be to take it as an attack on you personally. However, if you move the focus of the attack off of yourself personally onto your position or job title, the situation may be dealt with objectively–because it’s no longer a personal attack; it’s a criticism of your position.

Let me give you an example: Joe is the marketing manager for a small retail clothing store. His coworker, Steve, is the finance director for the store. Joe made a decision to start placing ads for the store in one of the local magazines. Steve said to Joe, “You shouldn’t have chosen that magazine. You made a bad choice with that one.” Joe’s initial response to Steve’s criticism might be to defend his choice. In doing so, Joe might display defensiveness, anger, and perhaps mount a counter attack on Steve’s performance of his own job. All of these responses have the potential to damage Joe’s future work not only with Steve but with the company, too.

But Joe has taken my class and employs the three steps above. First he takes a deep breath to get control of his emotions and buy time to think. Then he asks Steve some questions: what does Steve know about the magazine that makes it a bad choice? What, in Steve’s opinion, would have been a better choice? Finally, he shifts Steve’s attack from himself personally onto his position at the company: for instance, rather than use “I” or “me” when when asking Steve the questions, Joe might say “In your opinion, what choice should the marketing manager have made?” or “How do you see the ideal marketing manager handling this sort of decision making?”

With this sort of wording, Joe is taking the criticism off of himself personally and placing it onto his job title. Doing so provides a subtle shift in the conversation. Steve may not notice the shift right away, but if Joe keeps directing the conversation to his position title rather than keeping it on himself he will be able to choose the emotion he wants to display rather than responding with emotion he may later regret.

Try the three-step process of breathing, asking, and moving next time you are in a conflict at work. I’d love to hear your results!

Your comments please: was this article useful? Your comments will help me as I work with my clients in the future!


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3 Responses to “Getting Emotional: Handling Conflict at Work”

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I also am sometimes faced with conflicts at work. But the way I solve the problem is by asking questions of the one I’m in conflict with and involving them in discussion. I found that this way is easy for controlling the emotion. What do you think?

Best Regards

Tabrani Yunis,


Thanks for responding with your method for handling conflict. You are using the second method I suggest, Asking Questions, to help control your emotions and to give yourself time to think. Congratulations! When you use this method, you not only help protect yourself from saying something you might regret; you are also showing the other person a high degree of respect in the process.

Thank you for taking the time to share you experience!

The process sounds resonable. I haven’t tried it yet. My thought is this:

While your actions are being criticised, how much time does one have to respond? 4 or 5 seconds max? One has to be a super personality to perform these 3 stpes meaningfully in 5 seconds, even while assuming some parallel processing. I am skeptical about the practicality of the process, though I understand that if one had the time to perform these it would work. Typically if one had a lot of time, handling emotinos is not an issue. The biggest problem is that one doesn’t have a lot of time. Appreciate if you can fold in the timeliness of the response in your approach and suggest a more practical method.

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