How To De-Escalate Conflict In Your Small Business


Listen, you’re an experienced CEO and business leader – you know how to de-escalate a situation, it’s just that sometimes we chose not to remember.  I get it, it can be tiring feeling like you always have to be the person to take the high road, to always have to model the right behavior – but, that’s the job you took on when you stepped into the leader role.  And the alternative isn’t pretty or helpful.  Letting the situation devolve into anger, or stony silence doesn’t help you, or your company.

I think we generally have a better handle on this when we’re dealing with a client – but it’s easier to lose our perspective when it’s a colleague, or an employee.

So, what are the steps you can call on when you find yourself in one of these challenging situations with a colleague or employee?

I want to preface by saying this isn’t the only way, and I’m not saying it’s the best way – but it is the way I have been able to successfully resolve conflict time and time again.  So, maybe it will help you too.

Also, I am focused on colleagues and employees – different techniques are needed if the person is a client – we can get into that in another episode.

Now I know advice around this subject usually starts with focusing on things related to the other person, you know – the one who’s angry, or agitated, or frustrated, or just loud.  But I think there is another, really important, step to take before you even think about the other person.  The first thing you should do is check in with yourself.  You know what they say – always put your mask on first

If you don’t take a beat to listen to yourself, and figure out what role you’re choosing to play in this drama, you will never successfully defuse it.  What are you wanting to get across, what need are you trying to communicate.  Sure, a lot of the time when someone comes at you, your first reaction is to defend.  But think a bit beyond that – what do you need right now.  Are you feeling challenged because you need, and don’t feel you’re getting, respect, or validation.  Or maybe you just need the other person to listen to what you are saying.  Either way, until you take a breath and figure out what you need in this situation, you can’t de-escalate it.  So, do the temporary alternative – punt.

Don’t respond.  Let the other person have their say (because we already know that one of their needs it to be heard), and then, very calmly, let them know you need to table the discussion for later, when everyone is thinking clearly.  You have the absolute right, and I would suggest the responsibility, to take a time out to gather your thoughts.  So call a rain delay – take a time out – take a breath.

Now, you may find that you don’t need a time out.  When someone approaches you, right then and there, you may be able to do a quick check in with yourself and balance.  And if that’s the case, then you ‘e immediately ready for the next step.  But if not, and you did call a halt, when you revisit the discussion – and yes, you absolutely should revisit the discussion – don’t just leave it hanging there and hope it will go away by itself.  That never happens – make sure you are in a private setting.  This isn’t a play, put on for the entertainment of others.  It’s a one on one conversation, and both you and the other party deserve privacy.

“If you don’t take a beat to listen to yourself, and figure out what role you’re choosing to play in this drama, you will never successfully defuse it.”

Open the discussion by letting them know you heard them, and ask if they would like to add anything to what they expressed earlier.  If they do, listen quietly, and acknowledge that you’re listening.  Don’t just stare at them, counting the minutes until you can start talking – really listen and hear what they’re saying, hold eye contact, nod your head in understanding.  And before you go getting all spicy with me, I said understanding, not agreement.

If it’s a phone conversation, vocalize your understanding with phrases such as “I see” and “I understand”.  Again, you aren’t agreeing, you’re voicing that you understand what they said.

Once they’ve finished (you have to let them talk it out without interrupting – jumping in will only make the situation worse).  So, once they’re done – I’ve found that a great way to immediately create partnership is to use story to alter their way of looking at the situation.  So for instance, “if Sally approached you the way you approached me, what would you think, what questions would you ask Sally”.  Use this approach to help them begin to see the situation from the other side.  And again, listen to their responses, and use them as a springboard to discussion.  Who knows, you might discover valuable information you hadn’t considered.

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Really, there are two goals here 1- to really understand what they’re trying to communicate, because even if their initial approach was wildly off the mark – they were still trying to say something.  And 2- to clearly communicate your boundaries.  And yes, you should communicate your boundaries – after all, if a colleague or employee approaches you in a way you consider unacceptable, you have to communicate that – let them know your boundaries, do it in a nice way, but do it.  And remember, that goes both ways, you have to respect their boundaries as well.

So, remember these steps when you find yourself in a difficult situation with colleagues or employees:

first check in with yourself, you may need a time out

when you have the follow up discussion, make sure you’re in a private setting – and listen and acknowledge the other person

use story to alter their way of seeing the situation – and clearly communicate your boundaries

Oh, and one more thing – don’t be afraid to apologize.  Not only does an apology go a long way, the lack of an apology when one is due, does severe damage to your leadership.  If you find you’re in the wrong, or you took a wrong turn, or said or did something that was hurtful – for goodness sake – apologize!  It shows that you’re self aware, that you consider other people, and you aren’t an arrogant you-know-what.

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