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Jane Gunn

Gunn Consultancy

Professional mediator and coach

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Political tensions at work: Ten rules for de-escalating conflict

In the lead up to the UK general election, political debate is everywhere and can ignite tension in the workplace. How can we de-escalate conflict (political or not) in the moment?
2 penguins on brown rock during daytime: Political tensions at work: Rules for de-escalating conflict

It feels like there is more conflict than ever at all levels of society, between individuals, within organisations, in government and globally

As we in the UK prepare for a general election, divisions around politics are spilling over into our workplaces, home lives and onto social media.

This week I observed someone take offence around another person’s genuinely stated political view. It escalated quickly, drawing in a mass of conflicting opinions and acerbic comments that soon divided the group to the point that it was no longer functioning and collaborative, but instead was dysfunctional and divisive.

Divisions around politics are spilling over into our workplaces

Avoid or de-escalate, that is the question

Should we avoid dialogue and debate around ‘hot topics’ such as politics, for fear of causing conflict or are there better ways to de-escalate tension?

Furthermore, what we witness in our politicians is an inability to engage in genuine dialogue and respectful debate. Instead, they criticise and demonise each other and on TV or radio events set up to showcase their values and views, they shout, gesticulate aggressively and talk over each other and the session moderator. 

They are hardly role modelling the values and behaviour we wish to see in our leaders when faced with opposing viewpoints and challenging situations.

In the workplace, the key principle of transformative mediation is to enable employees to have the skills, tools and mindset to transform interactions that have become negative, destructive, toxic, alienating and demonising, to become connected, responsive, positive, open and humanising. 

Here are ten rules for de-escalating conflict (political or not) in the moment at work:

1. Try to regulate your own emotions and ask others to do the same

It’s challenging. Ask for tone and voice volume to stay calm. Look for non-verbal cues for how someone is thinking such as body language, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice and gestures.

2. Take the heat out and share what your concerns are and why

Avoid being accusatory and accept there may be different interpretations of the same event or that others may have different allegiances and things that are important to them. 

Don’t jump the gun and leap to conclusions. Choose playback of the events over having parallel conversations with others.

3. Appreciate the danger of doing nothing 

Recognise the power you both have to resolve this before it escalates into something much bigger.  

As conflict grows it is rather like being on an escalator travelling rapidly towards the basement and we need to imagine pressing the red button at the bottom of the escalator for a few moments and then allowing it to flow in the opposite direction of de-escalation.  

Understand where you have got to on the escalator to stop the rise in tension. Choose to step off the escalator or stop its direction of travel to have a more effective dialogue. 

What we witness in our politicians is an inability to engage in genuine dialogue

4. Create a safe space to address issues

Breathe. Now might not be the right moment. It might be better to take some time to cool down. 

Schedule a meeting between the two parties in or outside the office environment, even going for a walk if it is just two of you.

 If necessary, break up the dialogue into bite-size chunks rather than attempt to resolve matters in one go. Take 20-minute breaks during the dialogue if needed.

5. Don’t involve others who don’t need to be involved

If you need a neutral third party then agree between you who that should be in the first instance.

6. What is this really about?

Consider what it’s about both on the surface and on a deeper level for each individual. Avoid thinking it is about losing face or winning. 

Question whether you are both wearing the wrong shoes and coming with an erroneous approach. Look at what the blocks are.   

7. Is there baggage?

Gently analyse if either or both of you may be carrying baggage into the scenario which may be impacting matters. 

Sometimes it is about something else, and the other party may not know an important part of the puzzle. Excuses aren’t helpful but understanding the context of each other’s lives may well be. 

When we slip into tension and conflict we can demonise one another

8. Take the time for deep listening and be respectful of others’ views

Acknowledge where the other person is coming from. Practice empathy and acknowledge their feelings. Rehumanise – when we slip into tension and conflict we can demonise one another. See the other person as a human being.

9. Identify the goal and outcome both parties want

Focus on the future and not the past. Find common ground for compromise. Think about what matters most to you and why? What do you both need for the matter to be resolved? What steps could you take now to clarify the problem and avoid escalation?

10. Third party assistance

If this doesn’t work and you can’t manage the issues between you, involve an external, neutral third party.

If you enjoyed this, check out: Are you instigating fear in the workplace?

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Jane Gunn

Professional mediator and coach

Read more from Jane Gunn