I was giving a talk on how to have productive conflict when an audience member asked a great question. She was clear on all the advice and agreed that the techniques I was sharing were great…but! “What if get emotional and I’m no longer in a frame of mind to use these approaches?” She was looking for a backup plan—one we should all have. What can you do when your anger, frustration, or defensiveness short circuit your rational side?

Ideally, when you get into a disagreement at work, you can stay focused on the issues and engage in a calm and measured discussion. I don’t know about you, but I don’t always live in an ideal world. Sometimes the issue is just too personal, or you’ve had the same discussion without progress so many times, or the proposed solution is way too painful to even consider. In those cases, it’s nearly impossible to stick to the kind of open-ended, curious questioning that will see you safely out of the conflict.

No Excuse

Just because Plan A isn’t going to work doesn’t mean you can give in and start yelling or pounding the table. The problem is not getting emotional at work (which is a natural part of being highly invested in what you’re doing). The problem is giving in to that emotion and lashing out in a way that’s inappropriate and destructive to your credibility or your relationships.

The cost of lashing out is too high. At the very least, you strengthen your colleague’s resolve and get him digging in. You likely also do damage to your relationship. I’ll bet that you also feel a little sheepish and embarrassed at your behavior. It’s one thing if emotions are making it hard to stay rational, it’s another thing if you let emotions justify nastiness or closed mindedness.

Be Honest

The alternative to either suppressing or denying your emotional reaction is to admit what’s going on. As you feel your pulse quicken, your volume rise, your face flush, that’s the moment to catch yourself and realize that you’re no longer in the right headspace to have a logical argument. That’s the moment when you can simply say “This conversation is getting me wound up,” or “I’m finding this discussion difficult,” or “This conversation is no longer about x.”

Before you think “I could never say that,” remember that you’re stating something that is already completely obvious to the person you’re talking to. By this point, even if you haven’t said a single word that betrays your inner anger or frustration, your body language has told a whole tale. Unfortunately, the person you’re arguing with is probably not making very flattering conclusions based on your body language. By being authentic about what you’re feeling, you reduce the chances that your frustration, or dismay, or alienation is misinterpreted as hostility.

You have infinite options for what to say next. Whichever you choose, the idea is to be transparent about what is causing you to react emotionally.

“I’m sorry that I’m getting worked up. All I can picture is having to tell my team that the project they’ve worked so hard on for 6 months is now cancelled.”

“I’m so invested in this approach now. I can’t fathom going the other way.”

“This has totally caught me off guard. This is not what I was expecting to hear today.”

The point is to admit (as much to yourself as anyone else) what’s going on. It will create a moment in the conversation for you to collect your thoughts. Surprisingly, admitting that you’ve become emotional will probably also help you refocus and get back to a more logical conversation. It’s when you try to suppress your emotional reaction that it gets the better of you.

Move On

At that point, go ahead and ask for what you need.

“Ok, let’s keep going. I need to get past this.”

“I’m going to try to be more open. Can you go through the rationale for this approach one more time?”

“I think I need some time to regroup. Can I come and talk to you about this tomorrow?”

You’ll be amazed how much more effective it is to be honest about your emotional reaction. It’s an important admission to yourself that you’re not in the best frame of mind for a logical discussion. It also demonstrates your integrity and willingness to be candid with your colleague. That kind of candor will strengthen the trust between you. Sharing your emotional reaction might not be Plan A in conflict, but it’s a lot better than letting emotions derail the conversation.

Further Reading

Your Teammate is Not Weird

Dealing with a Change That’s Hard to Swallow

Crying at Work