Tensions are high everywhere in America right now. Our workplaces are no exception. As I was reviewing the latest MAC6 website analytics, the most visited page on our site last month was a blog we wrote in 2018 on this very topic. Some things never change – when humans are asked to work collaboratively it is inevitable tension will arise. Throw in a pandemic, economic uncertainty and a heated political election – no wonder “workplace tension” was one of the most frequent searches.

What we need right now are a few simple and effective tools in our tool kit to help lower the collective temperature. Can we discuss a project that isn’t going well without hurt feelings and arguing? Absolutely. It takes intention, some skill and awareness to do it. Can we discuss the hard topics that create strong opinions on each side? Definitely! When both sides are committed to listening to the other side. All of these tips I am about to share are simple, but far from easy. They may even take a lifetime to perfect. But perfection is not the goal – continuous improvement and a willingness to have the uncomfortable conversations that make us all better – that’s the goal.

  1. Start with yourself. As Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Nothing changes if you don’t. What is your internal temperature? Are you feeling calm, levelheaded, and well rested? Great – than you are probably up for an important conversation or big decision. On the other side – are you exhausted, stressed, and feeling emotionally uneven? Not the best time to ask a coworker for feedback on a project that isn’t going well. When you ask yourself, “how am I feeling in this moment?” Are you able to clearly label your emotions? Or are you unsure of your internal state? Your emotional state impacts the people around you whether you are aware of your emotional state or not. When important decisions need to be made or difficult conversations to be had – ideally you will do them in a clear emotional state. To get into the habit of knowing what emotional state you are in – use a simple analogy. Imagine you have a wine glass filled with liquid. The liquid is your inner workings. Is the liquid clear? Clear is an ideal state – you are well rested, feeling emotionally stable with little to no stress. Or perhaps your glass is cloudy. This signifies people should “approach with caution”. You are doing pretty well but you are carrying some tiredness, stress or anxiety. Lastly, you glass could be red. This means you are in a heightened emotional state and big decisions and conversations should be deferred. The important thing to remember here is it could be a positive or negative emotion that will turn your glass red. If you are flooded with positive emotion it is also not the time to make major life changing decisions. If you lead a team, this is a powerful tool to teach. When you have common language, people can quickly and easily understand the emotional states of their coworkers and know when to and when not to have critical conversations. One suggestion is to begin your weekly staff meeting with a quick check- in– what color is everyone’s liquid?
  2. Seek to Understand – Have you ever been in an intense conversation with someone and you stopped listening to what they were actually saying because you were so busy thinking of your rebuttal? Or worse, you cut the other person off because you assume you know how their sentence finishes and you want to share your point? Have you ever been so mad at someone about what you thought they said or meant only to find out you were wrong? Me too. I think all of us have experienced some version of those three scenarios. Humans as a species do a terrible job of listening. Our brains can process 3x more things than the average conversation speed. Without intention we are quickly wandering off to either our next reply or our to-do list. Truly listening takes intention, practice and curiosity. The practice of Active Listening can help you develop the habit and improve your ability to listen. There is a good overview of the practice in this Forbes article. The key takeaway for our purposes today is to begin with a curious mindset. Pretend you are an investigative journalist and when you feel tension, disagreement, or distraction creeping in, lean in to curiosity. Ask questions. Some great ones are borrowed from our therapist friends: Tell me more? How did that make you feel? Why do you think that happened? Open ended questions are key – try to avoid yes or no questions. When you are listening really seek to understand. There will be plenty of time for you to form your opinion – but first you should be confident you have a crystal-clear understanding of what the person is trying to communicate.
  3. Embrace Conflict – Most people, especially in the workplace, shy away from conflict. However, conflict done right is a critical element to the health of any organization. The key is to always focus on the issue, never the person. Focus on the project that did not meet the deadline not George. What issues came up that we didn’t plan on? Bring your curiosity – ask questions and be proactive. What can we learn so that we do not make this mistake again? Personal attacks can creep in quickly. When that happens, we go from clear glasses to red, the curiosity is gone, and trust is eroded. However, if the conversation stays focused on the issue and a curious approach is taken people are more willing to share, be vulnerable and seek solutions.

In summary, if things are feeling tense in your workplace or really any place where other humans also occupy space, try these 3 things to quickly and effectively bring the temperature down:

  • Start with yourself – Take your emotional temperature often and adjust accordingly.
  • Be curious – Always listen to seek for understanding. Ask questions until the full picture is clearly in view.
  • Embrace Conflict – Focus on issues, never people.

These things are simple but definitely not easy. Remember, perfection is not the goal. Keep your eye on forward progress. If you mess up, own it and move on. Teams that embrace these concepts have higher levels of trust and engagement ultimately, outperforming those around them. Not to mention, clearer glasses with less stress and more engagement. Now, I think that is something we can all get behind!