Most of us don’t want to lose our temper at work or say ill-considered or unprofessional things. The inability to maintain our emotional equilibrium may also affect our success at work, plus it can hurt others who may be coming to us for help. To maintain an empathetic and positive work environment it’s important that everyone feels comfortable voicing their concerns and that everyone knows that concerns will be addressed in a respectful manner. Keeping your cool may allow you to navigate tough conversations with greater poise and also get key information you need. Here are some ideas of things to try when conversations get heated:

When things are heating up, a simple first step is to remember to breathe. Taking a deep, slow breath through the nose and out through the mouth has been shown to increase brain function and calm your nervous system. One breathing technique is called box breathing and these are the steps you can follow:

  1. Picture a square in front of you.
  2. Breathe in for a count of four as you imagine traveling up one side of the square.
  3. Hold for a count of four as you travel across.
  4. Breathe out for four counts as you travel down the other side.
  5. Hold for four as you complete the square.
  6. Repeat for about 5 minutes or as long as you’re comfortable.

Name your feeling
Simply checking in with yourself to identify and acknowledge the emotion you feel can help you feel more in control of your emotions. It’s best to do this even before things get heated. For example, if you notice that you’re starting to breathe a bit more rapidly, try thinking about why that is. For instance, you may say:

  • “Hmm, my breathing is getting a bit faster. I’m probably feeling stressed right now because this is a hard conversation.”
  • “I’m getting sad about everything he/she’s going through.”

Engage your senses
Consciously engaging your sight, smell, touch, taste or hearing helps pull you into the present moment and calm you. When you’re faced with a difficult or heated conversation, try taking a second to notice things around you like:

  • the colours in the picture on the wall
  • the smell of coffee from the next room
  • the feel of the desk in front of you

You can also try grounding techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which asks you to name:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 you can touch
  • 3 you can hear
  • 2 you can smell
  • 1 you can taste

Practice active listening
Sometimes what the person is saying can feel upsetting or attacking. You may feel an urge to defend yourself or stop them from saying things that you know aren’t true or are distorted. This usually backfires. People find it difficult to listen if they don’t feel heard themselves. What’s often more helpful is to let them talk and actively listen, trying to understand what they’re saying.

  • One idea is to pretend to be a reporter whose job it is to write a story later about what the person said. This strategy helps pull you out of the stress of the moment and forces me to think about what the person is sharing.

Take a break
It’s good to remember that sometimes it’s necessary and absolutely OK to walk away. It’s best to do it before you’re feeling really frustrated or upset or when you start to notice that the above techniques aren’t working to slow your heart rate.

  • In this situation, it’s OK to simply say, “Thanks for sharing this. I want to hear more about it but give me just a minute to digest it first. I’ll come talk with you later this afternoon.”
  • In doing so, you acknowledge the importance of what your co-worker has brought up with you but give yourself the time and space to think about it and return to the conversation in a calm, empathetic and likely more productive manner.

It’s natural to feel emotional responses to hard conversations but learning to manage our emotions in a healthy way can help us stay present and professional, support those who’ve come to us with challenges and ensure that we receive the information we need to be successful.