Years ago I worked for a man legendary for his volcanic temper. On a good day, he threw tantrums with his vendors, sometimes screaming insults at them and heaving profanities -- words former White House Communications Director Anthony "The Mooch" Scaramucci has cleverly dubbed "colorful language." On a bad day, my old boss hurled newspapers across his desk as a way of "dealing with stress." Needless to say, I don't work for that jerk anymore.
While most people don't work for such extreme personalities, working for a bad boss is definitely a drag. In fact, bad bosses and (not surprisingly) bad communication are often cited as the top reasons employees quit their jobs.
Turns out, business can learn a lot from the world of couples' counseling. Like a bad marriage, a bad employee-boss relationship can be detrimental to the organization as a whole. By learning how to make 'repair attempts' -- one of the key skills happy couples use to navigate conflict -- employers and employees can become allies instead of adversaries.
Repair attempts are the "secret weapon" of emotionally intelligent people, says psychologist and internationally-renowned couples researcher John Gottman, who describes the term 'repair attempt' as any statement or action a person takes that prevents negativity from spiraling out of control.
After more than 40 years studying relationship dynamics, Gottman discovered it's the way couples can de-escalate an argument or tense situation that separate the relationship 'masters from the disasters."
"The goal of repair is to understand what went wrong, and how to make your next conversation more constructive," writes Kyle Benson on the The Gottman Institute blog.
Examples of repair attempts include:
"You know, I don't think either of us is really listening to each other right now. Maybe we should start over."
"I need a break. Can we talk about this in 20 minutes?"
"I'm sorry, I really wish I hadn't said that."
Though Gottman's work has centered mostly around couples and families, his groundbreaking techniques can easily be applied to workplace relationships that require cooperation, collaboration and support in order to thrive.
Here are 4 ways to keep your next tense conversation at work from going off the rails.
1. Lighten up
Seriously. Yes, there are times mistakes happen that cost time and money. And yes, there are employees and bosses who screw up royally. If that's the case, or if there's a repeat offender among the ranks, then the behavior has to be dealt with accordingly.
However, if you work with humans, mistakes are bound to happen. Rather than lashing out, a better way to approach it might be to crack a joke. Humour is a great repair technique that fosters goodwill, says Gottman. It's also a great way of breaking the tension in a strained situation.
2. Show empathy
Instead of laying blame, try to see the problem from the other person's point of view. Remember, it's a team. Rather than saying, 'it's your problem', think of it as 'our problem.' After all, that's how a successful team thrives: when everyone pulls together and finds a way out of the well.
3. Calm yourself down
Launching into a cursing tirade has never helped improve morale. In fact, negativity and hostility is a lot like smoking: it affects everyone around, especially the one lighting up. Just look at what happened to The Mooch.
So before blowing up at your colleague, take a few seconds to collect your thoughts. Take a few deep breaths, go for a walk, sleep on it -- do whatever it takes to get your emotions in check, because once you let loose, it's difficult to undo the damage.
4. Show Appreciation
Words like "I appreciate your concern..." or "I'm grateful for your effort...", when said with poise and sincerity, can go a long way to diffuse a tense conversation.
Better yet, when mutual goodwill is established from the the get-go, repair attempts are even more effective, Gottman discovered.
As Benson writes,
"If you are understanding of each other, your relationship will be better fit to stand the inevitable storms that will come... If you are disrespectful, rude, and distant to each other, then your repair attempts will fail."
Repairs don't have to be well spoken or even complicated to be effective. Any genuine technique can work if the foundation is right.
It's Your Turn
How do you handle tense conversations in the workplace? Share your thoughts on Twitter or in the comments.