We all know that feeling – the awful twist in the pit of your stomach when a situation at work has just elevated from annoying to tense. Maybe a colleague took credit for your good work or your boss made an inappropriate comment about your personal life. Either way, you want to make a biting comment back, but doing so will only make you look unprofessional.

Before you let your anger get the better of you, Gary Harper, conflict resolution expert and author of The Joy of Conflict Resolution says there are a few things you can do to diffuse a tense situation.

1. Respond, Don’t React

In stressful situations, we are more prone to reacting impulsively instead of responding, says Harper. Recognize that even a comment that hits a sore spot can fire up your emotions and cause you to snap back. Identify that feeling so when it comes up, you can take a step back and assess the situation. Take a few deep breaths or excuse yourself for a minute so you can approach the situation professionally.

2. Come Back When You Are Ready

“Pick the time and place to raise issues,” Harper advises. “Conflict resolution is usually most successful in a private, neutral setting.” If both sides are feeling wronged, mention that you want to discuss the issue in more detail, but not right then. Wait a day or two and then pick a time when you both have more than five minutes to talk. You don’t want to feel pressure to come to a resolution immediately.

3. What Do You Need?

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In the meantime, ask yourself what upset you the most and what you need to resolve the conflict. Did your boss mention your troubled child one too many times? Maybe you need to tell her that the comment upset you, that your family life is not affecting your work (or if it is, that you are working on the problem), and that you appreciate her not mentioning it again.

4. Remember Who You Are Upset With

Sometimes, coworkers aren’t the problem – patients are (or their families). If a patient made you angry, don’t snipe at your colleagues. “Many times those in helping professions can experience ‘compassion fatigue,’ in which they have exhausted their sympathy on clients or patients and vent on coworkers,” says Harper. “Coworkers need to support each other more than ever in such stressful environments.”

Recognizing how you react when a conflict at work flares is a great first step towards resolving it quickly and amicably. The end result is that your professionalism will be noticed, not your temper.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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