Work Negativity: 6 Tips for Turning Around Negativity at Work

Carla Rieger

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Conflict is like wind; too much causes destruction; too little and no transformation can occur.

A client of mine (a manager) told me he was having a wonderful day, and then a man called to complain about one of his employees. The exchange affected his entire day, his sleep that night and his ability to concentrate on an important project the next day. How often do you let a negative interaction ruin your peace of mind? That doesn’t have to happen. Below are 6 tips that can help you turn around a negative interaction.

1. “What has happened that makes you think_?”

Communication breakdowns are common in every workplace. There are many steps you can take to either prevent those breakdowns or to mitigate the damage. Escalation usually occurs when someone jumps to conclusions. Check out assumptions before you react by asking a simple question that starts with these words “What has happened that makes you think _?” or “What makes you say _?” You will be amazed at how quickly you can diffuse the situation by getting clear on the facts.

For example:

Customer: “You people here are so unprofessional!”

Response (in a calm, respectful & curious tone): “What has happened that makes you think we are unprofessional?”

Customer: “You filled out this form incorrectly and now I’m going to lose my credit rating!”

Response: “I can see why you’d be upset. I can assure you that this error will be corrected immediately and it will not affect your credit rating. Just for future reference, it is not our department who creates these forms, but we are happy to help you sort it out here. ”

2. Call a “Time Out”

If your Back Brain (or fight or flight response) gets triggered by a negative interaction you know you are feeling either afraid or angry. Once triggered - your quality of judgment, communication skills, and your ability to see solutions-all decrease. Your physiology prepares to attack or run away. Adrenaline pumps into the blood stream, heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up, muscles tense, voice changes pitch, pupils enlarge, etc. It is only when your physiology returns to normal that you can have a constructive conversation. Try taking a walk down the hall and do some long slow breaths, or simple count to ten before answering.

3. Vent your negative feelings in a constructive way

If technique #2 doesn’t work, take a longer break. Calmly and respectfully re-schedule a discussion later in the day after you’ve had time to reflect. Go for a vigorous walk or run, write out your thoughts, or talk it out with an objective third party, etc. Once you diffuse the negativity you will be able to see win-win solutions that were not apparent before.

4. State a collaborative intent

Once back in the conversation, start the conversation with such phrases as: “I would like to find an outcome that works for both of us, (or for all parties concerned). ”

“My intent is to figure out a way that allows everyone to feel satisfied with the results. ”

5. Reframe in the positive

Summarize the other person’s complaint and then re-state it in positive terms:

You: “You say you feel that the new schedule is unfair because it gets in the way of family commitments. So what you are really looking for is a schedule that works for your job as well as for your family. Is that correct?”

Employee: Yes, the schedule before let me pick my kids up from school, now they have to take the bus. Cheryl now has my old schedule and she doesn’t have kids. ”

You: My intent is to find something that works for everyone. I want you to meet your family commitments and for us to meet our obligations to our customers. Your presence in the late afternoon is important to the company. Let’s put our heads together and I’m sure we can find a workable solution. ”

6. Think outside the box

Once you have cleared up assumptions, vented negativity in a constructive way, stated a collaborative intent, reframed both your needs in a positive way, you will start to see possibilities. Take a few minutes to simply brainstorm on a number of possible solutions without editing. Then once your list is in place, you can both choose the one(s) that would best serve the needs of all those concerned.

Carla Rieger is an expert on creative people skills at work. If you want a motivational speaker, trainer, or leadership coach to help you stay on the creative edge, contact Carla Rieger.

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Tel: 1-866-294-2988


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