How to calm the farm: 8 tips for responding to an overwrought work colleague

At this time of year, the propensity for tears and tantrums increases exponentially.

As the realisation dawns that we’re only a couple of weeks away from Christmas, people tend to feel increasingly overworked, overwhelmed and over pretty much everything. Tensions increase, patience wears thin and before you can say “Santa’s little helper”, someone’s lost the plot and we are all in a world of pain and regret.

What can you do when a work colleague seems angry or upset?

When a teammate gets discombobulated and you’re in the firing line – or even in the general vicinity – act on these 8 tips. Do so and you’re far more likely to get a reputation for being a cool-as-a-cucumber, level-headed and compassionate leader as opposed to THAT GUY.

1. Listen

When someone is displaying behaviour that indicates they are angry, frustrated, or upset, they need reassurance that they have been heard and understood. Listen first and then share your understanding of the situation. See here for how to listen better. Listen for their feelings. Is their anger masking rejection? Is passive-aggression actually masking anxiety about a situation? Sometimes the first emotion that presents itself is in fact hiding the central feeling that you really need to hear and acknowledge. A dose of deep listening will help unpack what’s really going on.

2. Hold your horses! 

Avoid jumping into solution mode too quickly or trying to get your point across prematurely. It’s easier said than done when faced with a ruffled workmate, or when you completely disagree, but bite your tongue for as long as you can and go back to tip #1 for a second round.

3. Question to understand

Ask some useful, open questions to clarify your understanding. “What would success look like for you (and us) in this situation?” “What is important to you in this?” “What are our options?” These are all good starters for ten. See here for more cool questions.

4. Reflect to reinforce

Acknowledge their perspective to make them feel understood. Reflect what they’ve said to reinforce the fact that they have been heard: “So what I think you’re saying is X, Y Z. Is that right?” “So I think I understand your point, you are saying XYZ?” Paraphrasing doesn’t necessarily imply agreement.

5. Look in the mirror

Notice and observe your own reactions when you ‘lose it’. What kind of behaviour do you revert to when you’re stressed? What can you do to prevent yourself from falling into less than helpful styles of leadership? Managing your own emotions, especially when you are irate, can help deflate tense situations. What are your own red flags? Where do you feel emotions in your body? Tight chest? Lump in your throat? Take some deep breaths from your belly as this can help to diminish your fight or flight response.

6. Pause

If you don’t have an answer say something like, “that’s a good question, let me think about that.” If you are asked a question that puts you on the spot it’s waaaay better to buy yourself some time to come up with a response that you can back up, rather than blurting out a promise in the heat of the moment that you can’t keep.

7. Problem solve

When you sense they’ve got things off their chest, work together to come up with potential solutions. Make sure your solutions address their feelings and areas that are the sources of tension. There’s no point in coming up with solutions that don’t address the broken relationship if trust is the issue. Alternatively, you are going to inflame the situation by getting all touchy-feely, kumbaya, if the issue for that person is around a lack of progress on the task. Brainstorm some options, including creative ones. Ask,“and what else could we do?” after the second and third solution that is offered.

8. Take the next steps

What have you both agreed to do moving forward? Who is going to do what? What are you both committing to?

Extra tip: Less ‘but’, more ‘and’

Avoid saying “I agree, but…” Replace ‘but’ with ‘and’. Don’t say you agree if you don’t. Say “I agree” (if you do). If there is common ground, build on it wherever possible. But if you have a different opinion, it’s better to say. “I see your point. And this is my perspective….”

Extra, extra tip: Space, the final frontier

If it gets too heated (for you or them), get some space. Do the overnight test (reflect on it overnight and sleep on the problem) or even excuse yourself to the bathroom to regroup. If people get too deeply invested into fight or flight mode, no learning or progress can be made.

And finally…Be kind

Be kind to yourself and to them. A little kindness goes a long way and you never know what other factors outside of work may be contributing to tensions in your professional environment.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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