If there's one thing we know about fights and conflicts, whether inside or outside the office, it's that angry people often look for reasons to stay angry.
Hardly anyone will ever come up to you and furiously say, "You know, rather than being angry, I'm just going to stare at you and remind myself of all the reasons I really do like you." (Wouldn't that be great, though?)
Instead, your angry colleague might dredge up something you said in a meeting last month, just as an angry boss might reference that one time you missed a deadline. An angry spouse might stir the pot by complaining about how you missed the family holiday party last year.
Why exactly does this happen? According to psychologist Harry Mills, anger is defined as "feelings of pain combined with anger-triggering thoughts" that can sometimes motivate a person to defend themselves by striking out against their target. This allows them to feel justified in their anger.
A 2013 study, called "Conflict Management: Difficult Conversations with Difficult People," conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, found that it's important to maintain a safe environment when in the middle of an argument. That means saying sentences or asking open-ended questions that lead to points of agreement. The data suggested using "I" statements, specifically.
To defuse an argument, avoid taking the bait and allowing the other person to justify their anger.
Instead, you can simply say, "I'd actually like to focus on all the things we agree on."
(You can vary the exact wording as long as you include the word "agree" — e.g., "I think we actually agree on a lot," or "let's start by talking about where we agree.")
This sentence delivers a number of benefits. First, it ensures that we don't get suckered into prolonging the fight. When we force ourselves to look for areas of agreement, it changes our mindset. We move from seeing a person as an enemy to seeing them as someone who's not that different from us.
Second, it deprives the angry person of additional fuel for their anger. We've all encountered the person who's in a foul mood and just looking to pick a fight with anyone. But when we greet their provocations with a smile and a desire for seeking agreement, we make ourselves a very unappealing target.
Third, if anyone from the outside happens to be observing, we look like the nice, mature, collaborative, rational party. Anger is not a flattering look, especially in the workplace, and it will inevitably damage a reputation. But if you're seen as the person who can find agreement, who calmly and smoothly assuages anger, you'll earn the trust of your colleagues and bosses. This can lead to the type of high-profile assignments that angry people don't get.
If you feel you're in a situation where absolutely no agreement or common ground can be found, try looking again. Most of the time, even the most divisive situations have potential agreement.
If two executives are in a bitter disagreement about whether to grow the company organically or through acquisition, they both agree that the company should grow. If a couple is fighting because one thinks the other spends way too money on something that the other thinks is an unnecessary expense, they both agree on the need to ensure their financial future.
It can take a little practice to find agreement everywhere, but it all starts with just one simple sentence.
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