“Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe.
If you try to dominate people you are already defeated.”
— Daniel Goleman, Author, Psychologist, Science Journalist
With the slightest provocation, combative co-workers spontaneously ignite, and then they’re off to the races with fixation warfare! Singularly focused on THEIR agenda, THEIR needs, THEIR version of the truth, they ride roughshod over anyone and anything in their way. As they dominate the exchange, you can choose to retaliate in kind, which I certainly don’t recommend…stand there like a deer in headlights as they rail on, which I also don’t recommend…or you can invoke a redirection strategy.
The below seven scenarios describe real-life argumentative people, names changed of course, and how to best redirect in a non-inflammatory way, similar aggressive behaviors when you’re caught in a contentious situation. Of course the redirection techniques and their subtle adaptations aren’t intended to be all inclusive given the uniqueness, variety and complexity of both people and circumstances. But hopefully the suggestions provided will help those who struggle to find the right words when navigating their way through the land of the belligerent.
Redirect 1: I appreciate your perspective. Mine is different. Gotta run!
Kathy, a medical records manager, is a rules-based compliance aficionado who thrives in a black-and-white data privacy and security protection world. While mandates and regulations are understandably non-negotiable in any industry, healthcare included, Kathy’s no-shades-of-gray mindset has bled over into her personal life — specifically her volunteer sphere.
Kathy’s heavy-handed “do it my way or the highway” approach has alienated her altruistic colleagues. Worse yet, when her fellow volunteers constructively disagree with Kathy over minor topics, her tissue-thin confidence takes an unrecoverable hit, which thrusts her into a highly toxic emotional state. Lacking the requisite mindset to: 1) entertain a compromise, let alone attain one; and 2) respectfully “agree to disagree”, her mind shuts down, her shields come up and her scorched-earth tirades ensue. Unfortunately Kathy gets trapped within her own perspective, unwilling to view situations through the lens of others.
Trying to reason with Kathy and her “beat my colleagues into submission” conflict style, is a losing proposition. The only way to professionally and expeditiously shut down (or shall I say escape) Kathy’s notorious, seemingly never-ending rants, is to acknowledge her perspective, state your perspective then graciously walk away.
Redirect 2: I hear what you’re saying. What would be the pro’s and con’s if we looked at the situation like this…
No doubt Chris is in a pressure-cooker, 24 x 365, always connected, travel-intensive job with far-reaching responsibilities. Worse yet, he was promoted into a role that exceeds his capabilities. Having established no personal boundaries and failing in his attempts to meet workplace expectations, Chris’ temper flares within seconds. Being a bit paranoid by nature plus struggling in a situation where he’s unable to see his way clear, he regularly bounces between passive-aggression and victimization, lashing out at innocent colleagues whom he believes are setting him up for a disastrous fall. In his day-to-day collegial dealings, it’s not unusual for Chris to formulate a position on a particular topic then firmly dig in. His peers, who have opposing viewpoints and who are irritatingly fed up with Chris’ behaviors, take an equally hard stance. Because this situation has been festering for months, bridges are now irreparably burnt.
No good will come from highly volatile parties locking horns as they argue their opposing points of view. Someone must step up, be the adult and redirect the stalemate by posing a thoughtful question then guiding the discussion down the path of rational what are the advantages and disadvantages thinking. Not only is this technique effective, you may find as I have found, that the two heated parties are, quite surprisingly, vying for the same outcome, which would have been apparent had they not been blinded by hubris and turf-guarding.
Redirect 3: Realizing we can’t change the past, how can we move forward? What would you suggest?
Dredgers of history — the worst! Regardless of the topic and people involved, Maria has mastered the art of misconstruing what others say, immediately jumping to accusation plus taking you down every inconceivable, unimaginable and unrelated rabbit hole known to humankind as you try to untangle the situational mess. Through occasional tears, you hear about Maria’s childhood calamities, her misguided youth, what Person X did to her 23 years ago, what Person Y did to her last week and what you and your colleagues did to her this morning. You try to interrupt Maria to re-focus on the one simple, explainable event that you both can logically dissect then resolve, but to no avail. Like a dog with a bone, she’s steadfast in her resolve to paint her entire life’s picture so you, her captive audience, can appreciate why today’s misunderstanding was THAT TRAUMATIC. And if you can’t relate to how traumatizing Maria’s life has been, she’ll take you through her entire life’s story yet again!
Once Maria has hijacked the discussion, there’s only one way to stop her. Speak over her. Yes, that’s what I said. Speak over her with a forceful, direct though non-angry tone. “Maria, how can we move forward? What do you suggest?” You may need to repeat yourself several times until Maria stops dead in her tracks — allowing you to then redirect the conversation toward solutioning. While professionally polite people tend to feel understandably uncomfortable applying this technique, realize that if you don’t: 1) Maria will pontificate until Maria has somewhere else to go; 2) Maria will suddenly bolt without having resolved the conflict; and 3) Maria will painfully pick-up where she left off with her history-dredging the next time she sees you.
Redirect 4: I want to be respectful of both your and my time. Right now we’re going in circles. Let’s try this instead…
Casey is Maria’s first cousin. You’ve heard the term “beating a dead horse?” While I don’t particularly care for the idiom being an animal welfare advocate, with Casey it unquestionably fits. Casey is the Rehash King. He will feverishly relive whatever conflict is in play, every which way imaginable. And just when you think Casey and you are about to move past your sticking points to where you breathe a premature sigh of relief, you find yourself right back at Square One — Conflict Rehash Take 15! You even resort to wildly waving your white surrender flag in the air as you reassure Casey that you completely agree with his recollection — even though you don’t — but you’ll try just about anything and everything to escape circularity.
Eerily similar to history dredgers, we must stop rehashers dead in their tracks, including speaking over them if absolutely necessary, as we did with Maria. “Casey, we’re going in circles.” Repeat as necessary. Then immediately redirect. “Casey, let’s try this instead…”
Redirect 5: What exactly do you want to change, what is your Change Plan and how are you going to lead the charge?
Nothing is ever right. All is circling the drain. There is no hope. The world is crumbling before our very eyes. Meet Mike who is subject matter smart, exceptionally responsible and impressively meticulous. Unfortunately Mike expects perfection in an imperfect world and in an imperfect company comprised of imperfect colleagues. While Mike’s concerns are legitimate within his microcosm, Mike can’t nor does he try to appreciate that at times, there are organizationally bigger fish to fry. Unlike Kathy, Mike doesn’t blow up and melt down. He condescendingly nags and nags and nags ad nauseam, from dawn to dusk, day in and day out. Even more exasperating, when you address one or several of Mike’s legitimate concerns in an attempt to placate him, there’s little to no acknowledgement from Mike. He simply scratches those concerns off of his 5,463 item list, identifies the next set of concerns and starts Nagging Round 22!
While well-intended, Mike has been labeled a Chronic Complainer. Regrettably, Mike’s talents are being marginalized, his colleagues resent him and his team members would vote him off the island if they could. His team needs solutioners not naggers. While Mike has plenty of time to dole out complaints, he hasn’t grown his capabilities to know how, when and where to affect change, with Mike leading the charge. The best approach with Mike is to toss the ball back into his court. Hold Mike accountable to making a case for change, creating the Change Plan, socializing it and leading the change charge. If Mike doesn’t know how, recommend ways for him to research and learn. This technique will not only stop then redirect Mike, but it may also raise his self- and organizational awareness and help him shed plus grow beyond his tarnished image.
Redirect 6: I value both of you. We must find a way for you two to collaboratively work together. What is your combined Collaboration Plan and how are you going to co-engage in the work?
There’s no love lost between senior leaders Stacy and Larry. Their combination of overt and covert jabs, stabs, pokes and digs is tearing their team apart. Stacy and Larry each run to their boss, separately, complaining about the other, as if the boss’ role is referee. While their boss mandates that the two get along, the taunting and tattling persists. Merely telling two obstinate, strong-willed, win-at-all-costs senior leaders to stop their childish and engrained behaviors, isn’t going to work. Why would it?
But what will work, or at least start the ball moving in the right direction — instead of enabling their escalations, lock them in a room, assign them co-accountability for developing and successfully executing their Stacy and Larry Collaboration Plan, and don’t allow them to return to their respective offices until the plan has been co-presented to you, their boss. From there they must execute, producing evidentiary outcomes. Granted, Stacy and Larry may still not have the wherewithal to sort through their differences without a third party coaching intervention, but: 1) you won’t know until you try; and 2) the redirect method will stop the persistent escalations. Additional benefits — sending Stacy and Larry down this path may teach them valuable skills so they may, in turn, help team members within their functional areas break through any combative-related behaviors.
Redirect 7: I understand your perspective. I’ve shared mine. Let’s both take a step back, think about our discussion, then regroup so we can devise a moving forward plan.
In the heat of the battle, minds and ears close. Such is the case with brothers Frank and Steve who co-run a business. Frank is an easy-going, roll-with-the-punches, care-free entrepreneur while Steve, the older of the two, is more rigid and exacting in his thinking, planning and execution. While Frank loves some degree of spontaneity, Steve considers anything resembling impulsivity to be “the enemy”.
While the two work together famously 99 percent of the time, every so often they hit a rough patch where Frank is more business adventuresome and Steve is more business conservative. When their philosophies collide, it’s disastrous. While Frank wants nothing more than to quickly work through their differences and move on with life, Steve uses his sharp tongue, tunes Frank out, draws hard immovable lines then shuts down. There is no reasoning with Steve when he’s angry.
What to do? It’s time for a “pause”. Forcing a discussion upon a person who has zero interest in listening, seeking to understand, finding common ground or getting to a better place is, quite frankly, time ill-spent. In fact, while well-intended, you could further inflame an already volatile situation. A great tactic — respectfully put a pin in the current skirmish, suggest a cooling down period and propose a date and time to reconvene when, hopefully, cooler heads will prevail.
Thought Provokers: You’ve just been confronted by an argumentative executive, senior leader, customer or peer. You have three instantaneous choices — fight…freeze…or redirect. So you’re not adding to the $359 billion per year workplace squabbling price tag (in the U.S alone), how will you quickly, effectively and professionally redirect your crazy and angry co-worker?