4 Ways to De-escalate an Emotionally Charged Situation at Work

conflict in a meeting


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Hannah Berman175
June 25, 2024 at 12:28PM UTC

The workplace is constantly brimming with opportunities for conflict. Maybe Linda took Rachel’s leftover casserole; maybe Mark found out that Ryan is making significantly more than him. No matter what, you’re bound to run into problems in the workplace from time to time. Not all of them will result in extreme conflict, and not all of them will require you to step in and mediate, but some will meet both these criteria. In those cases, it’s best to intercede before Mark starts crying and Rachel flings her now-empty Tupperware at Rachel’s desk, sending the framed picture of her newborn son cascading to the ground. No office situation should ever get that drastic — and once you've brushed up on your emotional intelligence skills, it won’t escalate to that point. 

What does an emotionally-charged situation look like?

An emotionally charged situation can look very different for different people. More emotionally expressive individuals can respond to negative stimuli, such as receiving negative feedback on their work, with rage or despair — both of which are unhealthy in the workplace. People who are less expressive still experience emotionally-charged situations at work but are more seemingly diffident in those situations. 

No matter how expressive someone is about how upset they are, no one wants to be in a work environment where that negative energy is normalized. Using these tools, you should be able to diffuse tough situations before you or the people around you are able to react in an emotional way. 

How do you diffuse an emotionally charged situation at work? 

1. Know yourself.

In order to avoid negative office interactions, you first need to study yourself and your own stress response. If you know how you respond to stress, then you can isolate moments in which you’re feeling emotional and diffuse that energy. Some common bodily stress responses include: 

  • Quickened pulse

  • Sudden sweating 

  • Change in breathing pattern

  • Uncontrollable fidgeting

Once you’ve learned how you personally respond to duress, you’ll be better able to control that response. It's smart to find ways to calm down without taking your emotions out on your coworkers — not only will you end up embarrassing yourself less, but your coworkers will appreciate it, too. Some common solutions to make your stress response die down include deep breathing exercises, counting to five before responding to something incendiary and holding your own thumbs in order to control your bodily movements. 

2. Practice empathy.

When someone is feeling insecure about their job performance, it’s easy for them to lash out at coworkers. Likewise, when they’re upset about having messed up something important, their minds are hardwired to try to push the blame onto someone else. Don’t let these defense mechanisms fool you; use your empathy to understand what your coworkers are going through, and respond with love instead of violence. Remember that deep down, all humans essentially want the same thing: respect. You don't need to agree with your coworker or even appreciate their point of view, but you do need to make them feel respected. 

3. Have an open conversation.

Even though it might seem like a bad idea to address the issue head-on, sometimes the best thing to do is have an open and honest conversation with the person who you fear might act out. Ask to borrow them for a minute and take them to a place where they can feel safe to speak freely. Since the situation is delicate, you should strive to stay away from certain loaded phrases which might make the person feel worse (read more about emotionally loaded terms below). And if you don’t feel confident in your skills of locution, try simply listening; for someone in the midst of emotional strife, there’s nothing more soothing than a chance to explain yourself. 

4. Craft a plan.

After having heard all perspectives of an argument or difficult situation, you should create a clear plan of action that is okay with everyone who is involved. If just one person is dealing with a setback, create a plan for them to do better next time, or advise them on new ways to impress their higher-ups. If multiple people are in a disagreement, talk to each of them separately, then together. When you’ve found a plan that doesn’t make anyone completely happy or completely miserable, you’ll know you’ve happened across a true compromise. 

What are emotionally loaded terms?

When people are engaged in a heated conversation, they often turn to emotionally loaded terms as a last resort when they feel like they're not being heard. For example, when two people have an intellectual disagreement — say, about what type of cheese is the objectively best type of cheese — and both parties feel like they’re at the risk of losing the battle, they might resort to ad hominem attacks, or personal attacks, instead of coming up with more supporting evidence for their claims. Once Nancy stops talking about the empirical evidence suggesting that Parmesan production is actually good for the environment and starts questioning Lance’s validity as a cheese-evaluator, since he’s “never even been to Italy,” you can be pretty certain that the two have passed out of the healthy, intellectual disagreement zone and into a full-blown argument.

Here are some alternative phrases to use instead of emotionally charged terms or ad hominem attacks. 

  • “I would love to hear what you think about…”  

When you invite someone to share their thoughts, you’re telling them that you’re interested in their perspective, which is a form of respect. 

  • “I noticed that you seem upset.” 

This statement not only can prompt your coworker to divulge their feelings and talk about their emotional state, but it also lets them know that you’re looking out for them.

  • “Let me see if I understand you correctly. What you’re telling me is...” 

This paraphrasing technique helps make sure that you’re on the same page as the person you’re speaking to and lets them know that you’re really listening. 

After having brushed up on ways to de-escalate a sticky situation, you can rest assured that you will be able to save your entire office from a harrowing conflict. Plus, as if that’s not incentive enough to work on your people skills, if you’re good at de-escalating situations like these, you’ll be more desirable to employers who are hiring. Knowing how to restore calm in an environment full of friction is a truly valuable skill, and employers recognize that and search for that quality when conducting interviews. So if you're good in a tense situation, be sure to show possible employers your best side by emphasizing how important it is to you that everyone else shows their best side, too. 


This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for de-escalating emotionally charged situations at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!

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