De-escalating Tense Situations at Work


Speaking your second or third language can be nerve-wracking at the best of times! Facing conflict at work can only add to the stress of having to navigate professional relationships in your non-native language. Fortunately, knowledge is power! 

The following may help when you are looking to deescalate a tense situation at work:    

1) Use the passive voice.  Do you remember what the difference between active and passive voice is? Active voice sentences are in the common subject, verb, object order, while passive voice sentences are in the less common object, verb subject order.  

Did you know that passive voice sentences place the emphasis on the object of a sentence? This is because passive voice sentences start with the object, of course! Look at the example below. In this dialogue, a husband is using the active voice. It sounds like he is putting blame on his wife, right? The wife is also using the active voice and it sounds equally accusatory.     

Husband to wife: Darling, you didn’t lock the door last night and the cat got out! (‘you’ is the subject and ‘the door’ is the object)  

Wife: I did lock it! You must have unlocked it again when you went to the corner store.     

Now let’s see if putting the object first, can take the blame out of sentence:    

Husband to wife: The door was left unlocked last night and the cat got out.  Wife: Oh no! Did we forget to lock it?    

Do you see how the passive voice can de-emphasize a person in a sentence?  You can try this strategy at work, if you wish to communicate that there is a problem without blaming any one specific person.    

‘It seems that the deadline has been missed.’  

‘Looks like the delivery will not be made on time.’  

‘Unfortunately, the email was sent to the wrong client.’     

These passive voice statements make the problem clear, but without blaming anyone.      

2) Keep your tone professional.  

In tense situations, you may find that your co-workers, employer or employees are going through big tonal shifts as the situations progresses. They may start with a very professional tone, then go to a very informal tone, then jump up to an unnecessarily formal tone again. And all of this might occur within the space of a few short minutes! It can be hard to keep up with tonal shifts in English. But this might actually work in your favour. Matching tone-intensity (i.e., showing anger if someone else is showing anger, or crying because someone else is crying) is a sure-fire way to escalate conflict! Keeping your tone the same throughout, on the other hand, can really help to deescalate conflict.   

Keep using the professional, polite, formal and reasonably unemotional tone that you are accustomed to using at work. Don’t be tempted to mirror the words you hear while the situation is tense (don’t start using a lot of extreme adjectives, like ‘outrageous’, ‘atrocious’, ‘abhorrent’) just because others in the situation are using them. Don’t start swearing, even if others are. Don’t raise your voice or allow your grammar use to become ‘informal’. A calm, professional tone is a real boon in a tense situation – those around will eventually cotton-on that you are not going to be swept away by the emotion of it all. They will soon bring their tones down to match yours.      

3) Ask for a break.  

There is nothing like perspective to solve conflict. Suggestion a break, might give you the time you need to formulate an appropriate response to a tense situation, and it might also give those around you the time they need to calm down.  The way you suggest a break in a tense situation is key. You need to do so graciously and with social savvy, or it might make the tense atmosphere worse.   Don’t interrupt people to jump in with ‘let’s take a break’. Let people finish their sentences and then consider phrasing your suggestion as a question like:  ‘Does anyone else feel like a quick break would be helpful?’  ‘Would a break help us decide on this?    

If you have the authority and if it would be appropriate, you may want to consider insisting on a break. Again, make sure to do it as gracefully as you can. Use phrases like:  ‘I’m going to suggest we put a pin in this and take a break.’  ‘I think we need a breather. Let’s take a break and come back to this in 10 minutes.’

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