Say the wrong thing in a heated conversation, and it’ll likely combust.
But smart leaders don’t say things that add fuel to that fire.
And they get lots of practice because it’s nearly impossible to avoid heated situations in the workplace. About 85% of employees have to deal with conflict at work — and more than 35% say it happens always or frequently, according to The Myers-Briggs Conflict at Work Report.
“Managers spend over four hours a week dealing with conflict on average,” says John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company. “Individuals can use knowledge of their own conflict-handling style and personality type to navigate conflict more effectively.”
Smart leaders don’t say never
Remember: Even when things have settled or smoothed over, people almost always walk away from heated conversations rehashing what was said, what they heard and how that made them feel.
And the wrong words make employees and colleagues feel worse for longer.
So, while we can’t promise the worst of a conflict won’t get the best of you — and cause you to say something you’ll regret — we can help you recognize what smart leaders never say.
Here are 12 things to avoid when things get heated, why and a healthier way to respond.
1. ‘You never …’
Example: “You never listen to me or anyone.”
Problem: “Never” is an extreme. And if you say it, others will automatically counter with resentment and proof of when it wasn’t true.
Better: “When you do X, I feel Y.”
2. ‘You always …’
Example: “You always blame co-workers for your mistakes.”
Problem: On the other end of the spectrum, “always” is an extreme that doesn’t likely exist and will get the same negative effects of “never.”
Better: “In the past three weeks, I see you’ve had 11 mistakes on your reports, and you just told me James was responsible for most of them. Please explain how that’s possible.”
3. ‘You’re being …’
Example: “You’re being unreasonable.”
Problem: No one wants to be judged, especially in the midst of a heated situation. You want to avoid analyzing or calling out others’ reactions and/or behaviors.
Better: “I feel like you aren’t hearing the point I’m trying to make. How can I clarify it for you?”
4. ‘You’re an …’
Example: “You’re an idiot.”
Problem: Pegging someone with a negative — such as idiot, stupid, dumb or smartass — is a hurtful attack on the person, not just a critique of behaviors.
Better: “We’ll need to review the number of times you fell short on quality to determine what to do next.”
5. ‘I don’t care …’
Example: “I don’t care what you think.”
Problem: Everyone has an opinion, and in a heated situation, you almost always need to let others express theirs so they feel heard and respected. Without that, you’ll create more resentment.
Better: “I’ll listen to you. Then I’d like to share my view.”
6. ‘You’re wrong’
Example: “You’re wrong about that.”
Problem: Trying to point fingers when something needs to be resolved won’t help you reach a solution.
Better: “Let’s focus on the facts we know to get this resolved.”
7. ‘I’m right’
Example: “I’m right about this.”
Problem: Similar to placing blame, self-proclaimed credit won’t help you reach a resolution.
Better: “Let’s compare what we know to be facts, so we can formulate a solution based on what we agree on.”
8. ‘Calm down’
Example: “Please calm down.”
Problem: This almost always has the exact opposite effect of what you’re trying to achieve. People will either become defensive because they don’t think they’re uncalm, or they’ll become more riled up because you’ve called extra attention to it.
Better: “I’m feeling a little tense about this conversation right now. Can we take a break to think things through before we talk more?”
9. ‘Can you just …’
Example: “Can you just get over it?”
Problem: This minimizes what the other person is feeling and/or experiencing. Although you might want or need to move it along, you can’t lessen what’s real to others involved.
Better: “Let’s explore some ways to resolve this now and how we can start moving forward.”
10. ‘I don’t need to …’
Example: “I don’t need to explain myself to you.”
Problem: In conflict, everyone — and especially leaders — should explain reasons behind actions or decisions.
Better: “When I decided X, these three things weighed in heaviest on the decision …”
11. ‘You’re acting just like …’
Example: “You’re acting just like Julia did before she got suspended.”
Problem: For one, no one likes to be compared to others, especially when it’s someone they don’t see in a positive light. Secondly, employees are individuals, and you’ll want to handle every person and situation individually.
Better: “We have to discuss what’s happened here and what we can do to avoid it in your future.”
12. ‘I’m done …’
Example: “I’m done with you/this conversation/dealing with this.”
Problem: Smart leaders don’t walk out on heated conversations or difficult situations. That prevents a resolution and causes tension to linger.
Better: “I feel like we’ve gotten off track. Let’s go back and find our common ground and work from there.”