How to Diffuse an Explosive Situation


September 27, 2007   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

You know the feeling: your patience is shot, you’re about ready to throw your fist through a wall, or (if you’re like me) you’re on the verge of tears.

Maybe you’ve seen it in someone else: they stop listening, you can practically see the steam pouring out of their ears, they keep interrupting you, clenching their jaw, and looking downright threatening.

Yep. The situation is explosive. At any minute, things could go very wrong. Either you or someone else is on the edge.

When you work with the same people day in and day out, chances are you’ll eventually encounter a situation that can be deemed “explosive”. Whether it’s caused by just a bad day or a long standing feud, these kinds of situations can be enormously damaging to the team, not to mention the actual work that needs to get done. When you find yourself in a volatile situation fueled by anger, frustration, or any other highly unstable emotion, try following these steps to diffuse it:

    1. Inject humor
      In some circumstances, you may be able to lighten the mood by using a little humor to show you’re not taking it too seriously. Be careful though, you don’t want to give the impression that the other person’s feelings are not important. And you certainly don’t want them to feel you are laughing at them. Use this mainly as a way of taking the gravity out of a situation that is being dramatized. When a small disagreement has blown up into a huge fiasco, it may be helpful to throw your arms in the air and laugh about it. Bring things back down from their heightened emotional state by shrugging off the stress and having a good chuckle at the absurdity of it all. 
  • Invite a neutral third party to mediate
    There’s a reason most legal contracts include some form of mediation – it works. Involving an objective, respected third party can help both sides feel that they are being heard. Ideally, the neutral party can work with you to come to a mutually agreed upon resolution (or advise you on how to appropriately resolve the matter). If the person is truly neutral, and respected by both of you, the decision should be considered fair, balanced and acceptable by all. 
  • Shift perspective
    When you find yourself teetering on the edge because of a disagreement with someone else, stop for a moment and consider their point-of-view. It always helps me to remember the things I know about people; their past, the other things they’re dealing with in life, their patterns. Many times you realize that the situation isn’t even about you or what’s going on now. People take their emotions from one part of life and displace them onto other parts all the time. If you know your co-worker is going through a messy divorce, you might have a little more patience when they seem argumentative. You might overlook things that would typically frustrate you because you know they’re distracted and upset. I’m not saying to make excuses for other people’s behavior, but just try to understand where they’re coming from. This will also help you explain your opinions in a more relatable way.
  • Compromise
    Being stubborn typically doesn’t get you very far. You simply have to understand that there are different points-of-view in the world and you can’t have it your way all the time (unless you’re the boss in which case, your way is THE way). For the rest of us, we have to compromise – give a little, take a little. Don’t get so caught up being “right” that you completely overlook the possibility of creating an equitable solution. Compromise is a necessity for any relationship, professional or personal. When a situation is verging on explosive, take a minute to consider what kind of compromise you are willing to make. Open the discussion. You’ll probably find that, by showing you aren’t a hard-headed inflexible person, your antagonist will likely be willing to also show flexibility. Together, you can then create a solution.
  • Surrender
    All too often we get consumed with the idea of being right. We block out what the other person is saying because it doesn’t matter – we’re right, they’re wrong. In my personal opinion (and many will probably argue that I’m spineless) it’s typically more important to find a peaceful resolution than to stay “right”. Even if you’re right (which I always am!), it may be appropriate to concede and simply wave the white flag. If arguing isn’t getting you anywhere, and the situation is escalating due to emotions, consider the consequences of continuing to argue. Could this potentially damage your long term relationship with this person? Could this cause irreparable harm to your ability to work together? Could this person go crazy and slash your tires? Consider how important it is to be right versus how important it is to keep the peace. 

Let me be clear: There are definitely times when you should not back down. However, there are plenty of times when the argument is petty, unimportant and truly irrelevant in your life. Those are the times to consider surrender. It’s never easy on the ego, but it could save you a lot of unnecessary pain.

Written for Dumb Little Man by Chrissy of the Executive Assistant’s Tool Box, where popular articles include Energize Your Workday, How to be Proactive and 10 Ways to Build a Better Team.


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