How to De-Escalate Tense Situations at Work

How to De-Escalate Tense Situations at Work

Have you ever been in a high-stress work situation that bubbled out of control?

Imagine you’re in a meeting with a few key members of your team. They’ve been working on a very important project for you, and it’s starting to look like they’re not going to deliver the final product by the deadline you put in place. 

The team members are hashing out details, and one of them starts to become upset. He feels like this team member has not carried their weight. He’s blaming them for the project’s delays. 

He starts to get very tense. His jaw clenches. He raises his voice, starting to yell at the other team member.

He is in what we here at Stress Reset call the Red Zone.

Being around someone that has escalated into the Red Zone can be really uncomfortable. It can make you feel powerless, frustrated. 

But what you do next is critical. 

What if instead of feeling helpless in the face of their tough moment, you had a few tricks up your sleeve to help them de-escalate, and slide out of the Red Zone? 

Of course, the only person you’re responsible for de-escalating is yourself. But as a leader, you’ve got the unique opportunity to help your team member if the moment feels right.

Let’s run through a few quick exercises you can do in tough moments like this.

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

No, seriously! Before engaging with anyone that’s operating in the Red Zone, it is essential that you yourself are in the Green Zone – our term for a regulated nervous system. 

It’s like flight attendants always say during the safety briefing at the beginning of a flight – put your oxygen mask on before helping those around you.

Otherwise, you’re going to be offering assistance through the lens of frustration. This might look like raising your voice right back at that team member, kicking him out the room, or saying something you might regret later. 

So take a moment to close your eyes, breathe, count to ten… Do whatever you need to do to get yourself out of a stress response, and into a well-being response.

I want to make it very clear here: if you skip this step, none of the other tips in this article are going to work.

Be a mirror

For this tactic, you are going to essentially be a parrot for the person in the Red Zone.

Whatever they’re saying at you, you say to them:

So what I am hearing is…

And repeat what they’ve said to you, back to them. No need to add your opinion here, or offer a rebuttal to the things they are saying. Just make them feel like you understand where they’re coming from.

For example, if they say: “I hate Jack – he’s deadweight on this team!”

You’d say back: “What I’m hearing is that you’re not currently feeling supported by Jack?”

This might sound challenging – especially if you don’t agree with the outburst that you’ve just witnessed.

But remember: understanding their perspective doesn’t mean that you agree with them.

The point of this practice is to make the other person feel seen and heard by you.

Now, check them

Once you’ve given them ample space to talk through how they’re feeling, take a moment to check for signs of de-escalation. You are looking for signs that they are no longer in the Red Zone.

This might mean their breathing has slowed, the volume of their voice has lowered, they are calmer.

Invite them, then, to take a positive action – like taking several deep breaths, stepping away for a coffee break, or going on a 5-minute walk for some fresh air. This is proven to help bring someone back into the Green Zone!

The hope here is that their thinking slows down, and they are more level-headed for what comes next.

Move forward

At this point, it is very likely that the person you’re dealing with is ready to return to work! They’ve de-escalated, regulated, and are feeling supported. You might even find that they’re more productive than they were before the incident occured!

And above all – you’ve created a safe environment of connection for them. This process deepens trust and strengthens relationships, allowing for better collaboration down the line.

You now also have a friend who’s likely to help you when you’re in need someday!