With the shift to working remotely, the insanity of 2020 in general, and the stress levels of everyone around me I’ve noticed conversations getting a little crunchy lately.

I’ve had to do a lot of pausing, deep breathing, and counting to ten in my conversations. I find I’m regularly checking myself and my reactions against the things others say in discussion with me.

Are they being jerks? Do we just disagree? Do they have any awareness of how they’re being perceived?

In today’s professional setting especially, it is so important to check yourself (before you wreck yourself) before you react.

Here’s how you can do that.

Self Assessment

Before you react to a co-worker, a post on social media, your mother-in-law, a stranger on the internet, take a minute, and assess the situation.

  • What was actually said?
    Don’t infer the tone. Don’t take in your history with the conversation. Check the actual words. Do they warrant a response at all?
  • How are you responding and why?
    Before you even start to respond, you need to understand why you’re reacting.
    What’s going on in your body and mind? Are you feeling hot? Is your heart racing? Are you clenching your jaw? What about the conversation triggered you? And why do you think you feel that way? Assess it – maybe it’s not worth responding. Maybe it hit upon a sore spot or insecurity for you. Or maybe it was a truly outrageous comment.

This sounds like a long process but you can usually do it in the space of one or two deep breaths. This is great because as it turns out, deep breathing can quickly help calm your nerves, reducing stress and anxiety.

Situation Check

While you can’t know the intention of another person, you can assess whether what the specific words used may have meant.

If someone says, you’re dumb and I don’t think you’re capable of a task, it’s pretty clear that they’re being a jerk.

If someone says, I’d prefer to handle this task by myself without your input, it’s less clear. Possibly they’re saying you aren’t capable. Possibly it’s a task they feel they need to tackle on their own. This could be a disagreement or different perspectives rather than bad behavior.

It is important to know the difference between different opinions and bad behavior. Especially since how you respond in a professional setting can have repercussions beyond the individual conversation.

So you disagree, now what?

Disagreements are bound to happen in the workplace, with friends, and with family. If you want to resolve an issue, it’s important to focus on the ultimate outcome and not strive to be right.

Megan Phelps-Roper gives an excellent TedTalk on this topic. Don’t have time to watch it? Here are her 4 tips for talking to people you disagree with. 

1. Don’t assume bad intent.

I can’t tell you how often my tone or message is interpreted wrong in email or IM at work. Just yesterday my boss asked me a question via IM while I was hyperfocused on a task. My brief response was cause for my boss to ask if everything was alright – I’m not usually that short when answering questions. There was nothing wrong, I was just distracted and focused elsewhere and it took her asking me if I was ok for me to realize I hadn’t responded how I normally would. Luckily, my boss knows me well and thought to check in on me instead of assuming the worst.

Assuming good intent will generally help you in untangling miscommunications and disagreements.

2. Ask Questions

Seek to understand the other side by asking questions and getting clarification. Sometimes I’ll realize that I’m arguing my side with someone who agrees with me. But because we’re not asking each other questions, we’re going around in circles. When I realize I’m in a loop, I try to stop and ask questions instead of continuing the cycle.

It might go without saying but it is important that in asking questions, that you actively listen to the answers. You’re not asking questions to refute them. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if you aren’t seeking to understand.

3. Stay calm.

These are unusual times. I’ve noticed that everyone is a bit on edge. Being reactive only serves to fuel the fire. Try to hear the other side and understand their perspective, even if you continue to disagree.

People disagree all the time in the workplace. Healthy conflict can lead to innovation and fantastic solutions.

4. Make your argument

I love that in her article Megan says, “this might be obvious.” But is it obvious? When you’re arguing for your side, it’s important to make a clear and specific argument and not assume the other side knows your stance.

If you’re asking for a raise and your boss disagrees, have the evidence for why you deserve one ready and be prepared to make the argument.

If you think a staff member of yours isn’t ready for a certain responsibly yet, have the reason ready as well as a plan for how they can improve or develop.

It’s bad behavior, what now?

When it’s not disagreement but bad behavior instead, it can be hard to speak up. In the professional setting, you risk relationships with your boss, your staff, your colleagues, and personally your relationships with friends and family.

Staying silent implies consent to the behavior. And bad behavior requires a call out to be corrected. Catherine A. Sanderson offers up Six Tips for Speaking Up Against Bad Behavior to help us.

1. Find a short and clear way of expressing concern or disapproval.

This could be as simple as saying, “Hey, that’s not cool.”

2. Assume that a comment is sarcastic and identify it as such.

The key to this is calling out the comment itself, not trying to make the person making the remark look bad. “I know you’re making a joke, but…”

3. Make the discomfort about you, not them.

I personally struggle with this one because I don’t believe we should take on other people’s discomfort. However, this can be a helpful tactic in reducing defensiveness. It still calls out the behavior as wrong but again, without creating more tension.

4. Actively play out different types of responses to offensive remarks or problematic behavior.

Practice makes perfect in this type of scenario. Find a friend you can role-play some of these difficult conversations with to gain some comfort in the discomfort of them.

5. Find a friend who shares your concern.

If you’re not alone in seeing problematic behavior, pull in others to help address the issue. Be careful not to confuse this tactic with gossip and getting others on “your side.” This only works when there is a specific behavior that needs to be corrected and all parties involved are trying to resolve the issue.

6. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

It can be hard to speak up on behalf of yourself or your own beliefs. Consider how others might feel in the situation and speak up on behalf of them.
If I hear a colleague talking inappropriately about a member of my team at work, I’m pretty quick to speak up. Not only because I don’t want my team bashed but also because I don’t want to be the next subject. I can put myself in their shoes and call out better ways to deal with department conflicts.

We live in a very polarized state right now and it sometimes seems like innocent disagreements can turn into larger conflicts. While conflict isn’t entirely avoidable, these tips can help you navigate the conflict in a healthy manner so you’re able to resolve issues and correct behavior without sacrificing your relationships.


Photo by Hassan Pasha on Unsplash