Your co-worker complains that your loud phone calls are distracting him, and you fire back that he’s always late to meetings. Or you try to tell your boss the new system she’s implemented is inefficient, but find yourself talking in circles. Or maybe your team has been at odds for weeks about how to tackle an assignment, and now you’re about to miss the deadline.
If any of that sounds familiar, you’re not alone.
According to a 2015 survey conducted by data scientist Noah Zandan, half of all Americans have at least one serious argument per month. What’s more, 83% of Americans believe arguing’s inevitable in close relationships, and 25% get into at least one disagreement every day.
Considering the average American spends more than 40 hours each week at work, it follows that many of these arguments would be happening in the office.
When disagreements with co-workers go bad, they leave you frustrated and humiliated. At their worst, they could even cost you your jobs. The good news is, they don’t have to.
Because it’s not inevitable that a difference in opinion will lead to a destructive clash. In fact, it can do the opposite and start thoughtful discussions that’ll improve relationships, strengthen reputations, and enhance the status quo.
So, how can you keep them from turning nasty? To find out, Zandan and his team began with research on communication science and argument diffusion. Then, to watch those theories play out in real life, they conducted a linguistic analysis of over 100 pages of FBI crisis negotiations, chosen to demonstrate the language a trained professional uses to resolve conflict in a high-stakes environment.
From this research, the team discovered three ways to make sure workplace disagreements don’t escalate into destructive territory.
1. Know Your Audience and Mirror Their Language
When you’re trying to persuade someone, knowing your audience will allow you to present your case in the way that’s most likely to resonate.
Executive Communication Coach Briar Goldberg recommends that you think about how the other person operates. To be clear, this doesn’t mean using the same aggressive language or sharp tone—it simply means recognizing the other person’s personality and state of mind. For example, if your boss is a very logical person, arm yourself with data and figures to support your statement:
“It takes three hours longer to build a report under this new system, but the output is effectively the same.”
On the other hand, if your boss tends to be emotionally driven, you might get further with feelings:
“I’m concerned this system is making us less efficient and I’m worried that it might start to impact our client relationships.”
The same is true on the other side. When a co-worker begins a heated discussion with a list of data points and statistics, emotional responses will get you nowhere, and when the person who started the argument is clearly upset or emotional, logic is your least productive option.
Quantified Communications’ analysis found that in hyper-volatile situations, negotiators use 1.5 times more validating language (think: “I know you’re angry, and that’s OK” ) than negating language.
Goldberg says this tactic—understanding your opponent’s mindset and responding from the same place—is critical to deescalating an argument and getting everybody on the same page.
2. Choose Your Pronouns Wisely
The negotiators in QC’s analysis used 33.5% more “I” and “we” than “you” language, and that pattern is no coincidence.
Imagine this scenario: Your manager tells you the assignment you just turned in missed the mark. When you respond, you have three options:
“You Told Me to Do it That Way”
In laying blame, you put your manager on the defensive, which makes you look bad.
“I’ll Fix it Right Away”
University of Texas social psychologist James Pennebaker has performed extensive research on the use of pronouns in countless settings, finding over and over that, by using personal pronouns to take accountability for our messages, we can increase our trustworthiness, credibility, and influence with our audiences. Chances are good you’ll earn your manager’s respect by accepting his criticism.
“I Want to Make Sure This Doesn’t Happen Again. For Future Projects, Could We Sit Down Together to Make Sure I Understand Your Expectations Before I Start Executing?”
The authors of the Harvard Negotiation Project’s Difficult Conversations call this “the language of request” and, according to Goldberg, this combination of “I” and “we” will go a long way in shifting the conversation from criticism to collaboration.
By owning up to the mistake and asking your manager to help, you ensure it doesn’t happen again—meaning you’ve earned respect, opened a dialogue, and made a plan to get the support you need next time.
So, when in doubt, avoid the first option at all costs and aim to nail down the third. However, if you land in the middle (using “I”), you’ll still be in a good place.
3. Break the Negativity Spiral With Positive Language
We all know how difficult it can be to keep a positive outlook when you’ve been bickering for hours about the right way to solve a problem. But, according to University of Texas communications professor Angela Vangelisti, positivity is key. In any interpersonal communication setting, we mirror each other’s tone, mood, and body language. Negativity will breed more negativity, but positivity is equally contagious.
The FBI personnel in QC’s analysis used 1.7x as much positive language as negative.
Often, this tactic is the best way to get to the other side of an argument. Point out something that’s worked well in the past, or recall the benefits of delivering a stellar project—whether it’s the financial payout, impressing the boss, or simply getting that weight off your shoulders.
“I know this is a tough presentation, but we could bring in a lot of new clients if we get it right. Last time, Jim drafted the initial outline and Ellen and I were in charge of visuals. That worked really well, and I think we can knock it out of the park if we divide and conquer again.”
No matter how well you typically get along with your co-workers, the sheer number of hours we spend at work means clashes are inevitable.
Dale Carnegie, in the old-school gold standard of relationship building, insists the only way to win an argument is to avoid it. You can have victory or goodwill, he says, but not both. In many cases, he’s right, but workplace disagreements don’t have to become showdowns. By practicing these three techniques, you can stop the blowouts before they happen, keeping heated conversations cool and productive.