At my first job out of business school, I encountered a grouch.
She was the kind who, if you let her, would ruin your day right off the bat. She managed to set a negative tone in pretty much every interaction. This was actually a topic of conversation on my team. Every morning, I would walk by Bella (as we’ll call her) and could actually feel myself being pulled down by her energy.
So I decided to try something new—partly out of desperation and partly to see what would happen. I’d counteract her demeanor with glowing positivity.
Each morning for a week, I greeted her with the likes of, “Good morning, Bella! How are you doing? Love those shoes!” The first time, she looked surprised. But gradually, she lightened up and eventually began acting pleasant toward me. This made my coworkers curious. “Why is Bella being nice to you?” they’d ask.
My decision to be kind to Bella was a risk that paid off. I’d put myself in a vulnerable spot—if her demeanor hadn’t changed, I may have been hurt. But through kindness, I was able to reshape how she acted toward me. Eventually, we developed a relationship. As it turned out, Bella was intelligent and funny.
Through this experience, I learned that while you can’t change difficult people, you can often bring out a better side of them through your own behavior.
Over time, I’ve learned some actionable ways to diffuse tension and conflict at work. Here they are:
1. Build up your personal capital in advance so that when conflict arises, people give you the benefit of the doubt.
You should do this anyway, because you’re a good person. It’s the right thing to do, and it makes work fun.
Here’s the kicker, though. Positive pre-existing relationships come in especially handy during shaky times. You know how when you trust someone, you don’t read their terse emails in a negative tone, but if you don’t trust them, you might?
Make the effort to get to know people outside the conference room. Learn your coworkers’ kids’ names. Remember that their loved one just had surgery. Ask about their recent vacation, or suggest lunch or coffee away from the office. When the going gets tough, you’ll be glad you did.
2. Assume good intent.
Nine times out of 10, people are trying to do what’s right, even if it might not seem like it. So, don’t jump to conclusions when someone has made a mistake or done something that bothers you.
For example, if I find out that I haven’t been kept in the loop about something, I tell myself that the person likely just forgot to tell me. It changes your perspective—and the way you to talk someone—when you assume they aren’t mistreating you on purpose.
3. If there is bad intent, however, nip it in the bud.
It’s naive to think that no one ever operates with bad intent. When you recognize it, be sure to address it quickly and directly.
There was a time at a former company when one of my team members was grabbing some documents off the printer. An executive walked by and stunned him by saying, “You either cut your budget or we’re going to cut some heads.” Obviously, in no world is it OK to shock or burden someone that way. It was uncomfortable, but I confronted the executive in private and asked that in the future she be more careful with the time, place and way she delivered sensitive news.
Sometimes, difficult people simply need a reminder, in private, that their words and actions can have a huge impact on others. Language is powerful and words must be chosen carefully.
4. When you sense conflict, handle it live.
If someone sends you an email that suggests discomfort or disagreement, walk over to them to address it. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone.
It’s much more tactful to resolve an issue live rather than via digital channels. One of the best ways of calming a tense situation is with a warm, friendly voice.
You might think this would take more time, but it actually takes less because you’re not wasting mental energy by feuding, feeling bad, or trying to compose the perfect reply.
5. Use emojis.
I’m not trying to take us back to middle school. But when you can’t offer an actual smile, an emoji is the next best thing.
“Can you please send me that report?”
“Can you please send me that report? : ) ”
How much more pleasant is the second message? Use them selectively, but use them. They’re called “emojis” (get it? emotions) for a reason.
6. Don’t gossip.
While it can be tempting, do you feel good about yourself after gossiping about someone?
It’s important to make the distinction between assessing a team member for coaching or decision-making purposes versus putting them down. If you’re pointing out negative qualities, the focus should be on how you can help the person or team dynamic improve.
Plus, if you gossip with a colleague, they’ll likely wonder if you gossip about them, too.
7. If you know a situation will be difficult or unpleasant, force yourself to be cheerful and kind.
Try being nice, even when you feel like doing so should earn you an Academy Award. That’s certainly how I felt the first day I greeted Bella with forced cheerfulness.
When interacting with someone who has their walls up, like Bella did, it’s natural to assume a tense battle posture. But try something different. Instead of meeting them down in the dumps, help lift them up with cheerfulness.
You can’t change difficult people, but you can often use your best self to bring out better behavior in others.
In those toughest of situations, with the toughest of people, give kindness a shot. If you try it, I’d love to hear what happens.