Work Smarter//

This Is How to Turn Professional Arguments Into Productive Dialogue

Compassionate directness is key.

Courtesy of MIND AND I/Shutterstock
Courtesy of MIND AND I/Shutterstock

No matter how much you love your job, workplace disagreements are inevitable. Sometimes you don’t see eye to eye with a colleague about which projects to prioritize, or maybe you feel your input isn’t being taken seriously. Whatever the reason, you’re entitled to your feelings, and using compassionate directness to communicate them is a vital tool for maintaining a healthy workplace culture. Some of these disagreements are simpler to resolve than others however, and every now and then, a civil discussion can transform into a full-blown argument. If this happens, don’t panic (although if the conversation devolves into a full-blown fight, and anyone has crossed a line and acted inappropriately with you, you should notify H.R. promptly). Here are five mindful methods to help you manage workplace quarrels.

Be willing to compromise

There is no “I” in team, and there isn’t in “workplace” either. This can be easy to forget when you’re particularly passionate about a project or decision. But just because you think an option is the best choice doesn’t mean it is best for everyone else on your team, or for the business at large. That’s why compromising is key: Even if you feel pushback is warranted, expressing a willingness to be flexible — within reason — conveys respect for your team and their opinions, helping to diffuse disagreements. “We may get into a pattern of wanting something to work out ‘perfectly,’ or for us to get exactly what we want in that moment. But the more you can adapt, the better the result,” says Annie M. Varvaryan, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist. 

Don’t say: “I only want to work on Project A.”

Do say: “I know we have two important projects right now; I would prefer Project A, but what would be best for the team?”

Provide choices

Nobody feels appreciated when they hear it’s your one way or the highway. That’s why providing co-workers with alternate options, within reason, is a valuable communication strategy. “People respond better when they feel like they have a choice,” Varvaryan explains. “It gives the other person permission to make a choice, and not feel like their opinion does not matter.”

Don’t say: “I’m going to work on Project A because it makes the most sense.”

Do say: “I’m open to hearing your thoughts on whether I should work on Project A or B, given our time constraints.”

Use “I feel” statements

One of the least productive things you can do is play the blame game when things go awry. A more constructive — and compassionately direct — tactic is to explain how a situation made you feel, then discuss how the team can improve upon that in the future. “Stick with the word ‘I,’ because you generally cannot speak to the experiences of others, and don’t want to make any assumptions either. But you can appropriately communicate your own thoughts in a professional manner,” Varvaryan points out. That way, you’ll avoid being accusatory, which can get into a defensive cycle, keeping you and your coworker from being able to acknowledge any mistakes and move forward. 

Don’t say: “You aren’t listening to me — I can tell.”

Do say: “I feel unsupported, and like I’m not being listened to. But I believe we can figure out how to do things differently and communicate better.”

Listen

It’s easy to get lost in verbal self-defense when you’re in the midst of an argument. But that’s a big part of why they rarely end productively: You’re so focused on formulating your next rebuttal that you’re not actually hearing what the other person is saying. Instead of tuning your colleague out, stop and reflect on their words, and incorporate them into the dialogue.

“Ask probing questions about what the other person thinks,” suggests Jerry W. Cox, Ph.D, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in conflict resolution. Listen carefully to what they are saying, and don’t interrupt. “Interruptions are the gasoline that fuels fiery escalation,” Cox says. When the other person is finished speaking, don’t retaliate. Instead, Cox suggests you summarize what they said, to show that you listened, and then mention points they made with which you agree.

Don’t say: “It doesn’t matter: Project B should be the priority!”

Do say: I hear that you’re stressed about this important deadline. I understand, and agree that it’s important. I’m stressed, too. However, I still think Project B should be prioritized for the following reasons…”

Don’t raise your voice

If you’re working to de-escalate an argument, one of the worst things you can do is raise your voice — even if someone else does it first. “When people start to raise their voice, a good approach is to lower yours,” Cox says. “They will tend to lower their voice to match their volume.” 

This can be hard since our instinct is often to yell back and “win” when being yelled at, but Cox points out that raising your own voice actually won’t help you be persuasive. Work disagreements aren’t rival sports games: You’re trying to be heard and collaborate in harmony, not defeat an enemy or win some grand battle at the top of your lungs. You’re on the same team!

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