You know what they say about tension; that when it’s thick, you could cut it with a knife. It’s uncomfortable enough to deal with this kind of situation in social situations, but add that kind of tension to a work environment, and you have a whole new level of awkwardness on your hands.
And, while I can’t magically whisk away that tension you feel when two colleagues start to have it out in the kitchen, I can share what’s worked for me in the past. (And trust me, over the past 15 years, I’ve had my share of tense moments in the office.)
Method #1: Ignorance is Bliss
Look, sometimes things get heated in the office, and people lose their temper, or say something a bit “off.” While that’s not the ideal, it happens when people are working hard and trying to do their best. Sometimes, it’s best to just look the other way and let the moment pass.
It happened to me several years ago. My team was under a tight deadline, and all of us had been working overtime and weekends to get it done. When the final hour approached, of course, several issues came to light, and two of my colleagues fired off some disparaging remarks at one another.
The office fell silent for a few moments, then everyone quietly went back to what they were doing. About five minutes later, the two in question both burst into laughter, with the rest of us joining in. They apologized to one another, and we all got back to work with a renewed sense of purpose and teamwork.
If any one of us had jumped in on the mud-slinging, the situation would’ve quickly escalated to something much larger than what it really was—just a couple of overworked, stressed out colleagues blowing off steam. If you trust your team and know your colleagues well enough to recognize something as just out of character, it might be best to just let it blow over before addressing it any further.
Method #2: Evasive Maneuvers
Sometimes, things don’t seem to calm down on their own, and some sort of intervention is clearly needed.
This happened to me once while I was attending a management meeting and we were discussing how to allocate annual bonuses. Naturally, each manager was lobbying for the highest amount possible for his or her team, but what started as a professional, cordial discussion quickly turned into a nasty competition over whose department was most valuable.
Things got ugly pretty fast, but fortunately, one of the other managers had the good sense to try to change the subject. She picked out a trait one of the managers was highlighting about his team members—her strong communication skills—and jumped in on the conversation, commenting on how that was a trait we all would like to see developed more throughout the organization. She then deflected seamlessly to our manager to ask how the company was planning to help develop these skills going forward. Several other managers picked up on the cue and chimed in, effectively taking the focus off the initial argument.
Within a matter of minutes, an ultra-tense situation had been diffused into a constructive conversation that everyone could relate to. This isn’t an easy tactic, but if you’re fairly in tune with your colleagues and can pinpoint a relevant segue, jump on that chance. You’ll help get the discussion back on track, not to mention help save your colleagues from saying something they might regret.
Method #3: Mediate
Sometimes, you just can’t avoid the tension, which means you have to deal with it head on. This isn’t an easy approach, so if at all possible, save it as a last resort.
I was unfortunate enough to be at the source of the tension when this happened to me. I had just started at a new company a few months earlier and had been hired to make some specific changes to how the department was run. Yet, when I tried to make those changes, I started to run into resistance from my team as well as my manager. Finally, one day I’d had enough and told one of my colleagues what I thought. He had his own perspective on the situation, and before long we were entangled in a heated debate.
Fortunately, one of our other colleagues jumped into the fray and helped simmer things down by mediating the discussion. Incredibly, just the presence of another voice in the discussion did wonders for easing the tension. An impartial third party, interested in finding a mutually beneficial resolution, was exactly what we needed—at least to break the tension and get us back to working productively together again.
When you feel a conversation heating up—fast—it’s probably time to step in and help mediate. Pay close attention to the argument, and try to find some common ground between the two (or more) battling it out. If you can’t find anything, then come up with a suggestion of your own. You’ll have to think quickly, and make sure whatever you suggest is fairly benign—you want to ease the tension, not add fuel to the fire.
If you care about your work, and you work with anyone else, I guarantee you’ll encounter a few tense moments in the office. Keep these tips in mind, and the next time things get a bit thick in the office, you’ll know just how to cut the tension—no knives necessary.
Photo of tense woman courtesy of Shutterstock.