Defusing Tense Work Situations

By Dawn Anfuso, Workwise
Article Launched: 08/06/2008 09:05:45 PM PDT

Years ago, while working at a fast-food restaurant, I witnessed a manager chase an employee around, yelling obscenities at him. Even at my young age and inexperience, I knew that wasn’t proper workplace behavior.

As the economy declines, and companies cut their work forces, this type of rage tends to manifest frequently among the workers “left behind.” They’re expected to do more for the same salary – with less job security, little hope for a raise and skyrocketing gas prices cutting into their earnings. It’s a recipe for frustration.

A 2008 study published in Human Resources Executive Online found that frustrated employees may represent 20 percent or more of the total work force.

When tension spreads in the workplace, so does the potential for hostility and desk rage. In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports nearly half of American workers have faced yelling and verbal abuse on the job, and one in four workers have been driven to tears.

Communications expert David Wolf says few people know how to cope effectively with desk rage because they’ve never been taught simple techniques to deflect it.

Wolf, a life skills coach, a social worker and the author of “Relationships That Work: The Power of Conscious Living,” offers techniques to defuse workplace frustration:

When someone rages at you:

Stay emotionally neutral. Take a breath, keep your voice low and slow, and don’t take
it personally. Don’t let fear or your own anger take hold.

Restate in your own words what you just heard. Don’t add judgments or interpretations.

Be a mirror. Each time he or she comes back at you, accurately reflect back what he or she just said. They’ll quickly see that you’re listening to them. Watch how this simple technique converts hostility into reasonable dialogue.

and understanding When you’re feeling rage:

Simply state the facts of what happened. Don’t interpret or analyze them. For example, say, “You agreed to be at work on time, and to call me if you were going to be late. Three days in the past week you arrived more than a half hour late – and one of those days we had a staff meeting at which I really needed your assistance.”

Use “I” statements to express how you feel. For example, “I am frustrated by this and feel disrespected.” Avoid “you” statements, such as “You made me angry.”

Finally, tell the person what you need or want, using “I” statements. You might say, “I want an assistant who is respectful and responsible. I need you to honor your agreements.”

Dawn Anfuso is a South Bay-based business writer and former managing editor of Workforce magazine. If you have workplace or job-search questions, email Dawn at dawnanfuso@ Writers will remain anonymous.

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