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5 Ways to Keep Your Head When Things Get Testy in the Workplace

Cooling down after a confrontation takes focus and insight.
5 Ways to Keep Your Head When Things Get Testy in the Workplace
Image credit: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Everyone's been there: In the midst of an argument (or just a good-natured debate) with a co-worker, suddenly things get serious. Heated words are exchanged. One thing leads to another, and it's not long before you're both ready to tear out each other’s hair. Unless you’re some kind of Zen guru, you’re likely to have some trouble shifting back down to neutral after one of these rows.

Learning how to regain your composure is more than personal development. Losing your cool in the workplace can be detrimental to your career (and heaven help you if your "discussion" involves a superior). Here are five ways to channel a more positive energy and show yourself to be the bigger person.

1. Walk away.

It's the oldest trick in the calming-down book and no doubt one your mother has suggested a time or two. This tactic can benefit you both and also help balance the overall work environment -- if you understand when it’s appropriate.

If you’re in the middle of hashing it out, don’t retreat until you’ve heard what the other person has to say. If the conversation has devolved, neither of you is saying anything productive and you've resorted to hurling hurt feelings at each other. It's probably time to take your stroll.

Speak calmly and clearly to let the other person know you’re going to remove yourself from the situation. Then do so, without storming off. Your exit is not part of your argument.

2. Clear your mind.

A clear mind brings many benefits, and you'll find quite a few proven ways to get there. After you’ve removed yourself from the argument, stretch your stroll into a walk. Get some fresh air. Push all of the fallout from your brain and replace it with pleasant memories, such as a good weekend or a recent gathering with friends. This kind of neurological substitution really can work wonders.

If your walk takes you to a quiet spot, consider a brief break to meditate and recenter yourself. With guided-meditation apps, all you need to achieve mindfulness are your smartphone and a pair of earphones.

Related: 10 Effective Ways to Beat Stress

3. Engage in another task.

Sometimes, immersing yourself in a new effort is the best way to calm down. Do you have a big project coming up? Perfect. Calm your nerves by vigorously working to attain a plausible goal.  

In fact, it’s been proven that high stress levels actually can make you work more efficiently. Perhaps something good can come out of your bad argument.

4. Consider the nature of the argument.

According to Quirky President Gina Waldhorn, "Empathy is an important attribute to fostering long-lasting, positive coworker relationships. If you have a confrontation, remember your coworker's unique perspective comes from the other tasks, stresses and relationships they're dealing with daily -- just like you are."

Especially in a startup, each team member might tackle multiple roles each day. There's no such thing as avoidance. Eventually, you'll have to make up (or at the very least, return to professional civility). It's important to consider what, exactly, made you and/or the other person so upset. Was it the discussion's content or something else?

Unless you're running a really small shop, you've got a department to help with this. If honest reflection reveals you and your coworker might have bigger or underlying issues, talk to someone in human resources. This is especially helpful if you're unable to reconcile the situation yourselves and require a level-headed third party to mediate.

Related: Real Leaders Own Their Mistakes

5. Make amends.

This often is the hardest step. After an argument, most people think of themselves as victims and perceive the other individual as the perpetrator. Eventually, though, comes this realization: Both people usually share some blame. That’s why it’s important to make amends. Apologize for your role in the argument, try to empathize with the other individual, and initiate the process to correct the course your relationship is taking. In the end, it will be the best thing for you as well as your workplace.

Related: Using Email to Resolve Conflicts Is a Reliable Way of Making Everything Worse

It’s ironic that getting into an argument can be so easy -- almost effortless, really -- while getting out of one is so very difficult. If you find yourself in this unenviable position, understand that you hurt yourself and your reputation when you try to be petty instead of compromising. You probably won’t end up a Zen master, but less stress and more reconciliation at work might just help you live a little longer.