How to Deal with an Argument at Work

By Tom Christensen

Navigating relationships in the workplace can be tough, and chances are you’ve run into someone that you just didn’t see eye-to-eye with. Disagreements with colleagues aren’t uncommon, and they can make the office feel awkward and maddening. However, there are strategies one can take to ensure that a workplace kerfuffle doesn’t lead to an unpleasant meeting with HR.

Strategy #1: Take a Breath
An unexpected argument between a colleague could produce some strong feelings. Whether you’re feeling angry and upset or down and depressed, take a moment to calm yourself and clear your head. Can you step away from the situation? Take a break, grab some lunch, get a coffee or a cup of water. Give yourself some physical space so that you can think about the situation mindfully and genuinely. Consider calling a friend or a family member, someone who is happy to listen non-judgmentally and able to validate your feelings. Or find some time to meditate, either on your own or using a guided meditation or an app. There are – from yawning and stretching, to stroking your hands or repeating a mantra – that can help you stay present and grounded in a heated moment.

If you can’t walk away, what can you do to find peace in the moment? Deep breathing has many benefits for the mind and body. It can relax your muscles, improve circulation, and even lower blood pressure, all of which aid to reduce stress. is an easy and effective way to calm your mind and body down. To practice Square Breathing, simply picture a square with each side assigned a specific instruction. The left side of square instructs you to breathe in for four seconds, the top side of the square instructs you to hold your breath for four seconds, the right side of the square instructs you to breathe out for four seconds, and the bottom side of the square instructs you to hold your breath for four seconds again. Repeat this pattern for however long you need. This simple exercise can quickly calm you down and be discreetly used at any given moment.

Strategy #2:Change Your Perspective

Think about what sparked the argument. Is there a different way to approach it? What might be going through your colleague’s head? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the most helpful way to think about the events that occurred? I often use strategies with my clients to answer those questions. The goal isn’t to try to read another person’s mind, but rather to figure out a more rational way of thinking about the situation in order to ease any anxiety and tension that it may have produced so that you can move forward. At the core of CBT is , which proposes that how we react to a situation is related to how we perceive the situation. Thus, changing the way one perceives an event, such as an argument, can also impact their emotional, behavioral, and physiological response to it.

So, let’s say you receive an email from your supervisor asking for an update regarding a project. What thoughts or assumptions might be going through your head? Perhaps you’re thinking, “My boss never trusts me to do my work and they always treat me like I’m incompetent! They need to leave me alone!” Now, how might that thought make you feel, both emotionally and

physically? And how might you react in response to those feelings? Maybe you feel angry, your muscles become tense, and your blood pressure starts to rise. Then, in the heat of the moment, you respond with a passive aggressive email that you almost immediately regret.

Now, what if you approached the situation with a different way of thinking? Take a moment to consider your relationship with your supervisor. What evidence do you have to suggest that your boss doesn’t trust you or thinks you’re incompetent? Then take a moment to consider your supervisor’s motives for sending that email. Were their intentions really meant to be malicious? Now you might be thinking, “My boss often praises my work and my ability to meet deadlines. They’re probably just checking in to see if I need any support.” Instead of feeling hot headed, you might feel excited to tell your supervisor all about the progress you’ve made, or maybe even relieved to have an opportunity to ask for some assistance.

Strategy #3: Communicate Effectively

Once you’re calm, cool, and collected, and you’re able to think about the argument with your colleague rationally, consider some communication strategies that can help each of you discuss the issue at hand. One effective way to communicate during a disagreement is to use “I Statements”. These simple-to-use statements are designed to focus on what one is feeling as a result of a person’s actions. By putting the focus on these feelings, “I Statements” can help keep you from placing blame on the other person, thereby prohibiting the argument from escalating. Additionally, they allow the other individual to focus on the impact of their actions, helping them to thoughtfully consider how a different action could produce a better outcome.

What do “I Statements” look like in action? Let’s revisit the prior situation, in which you receive an email from your boss asking for an update regarding a project. However, instead of receiving one email, you’ve received several over the course of the week. You might feel pressured to finish your work, making it difficult for you to to focus, and causing you to rush through your work and make careless mistakes. The next time you meet with your boss, you express exactly that. “When I receive all of these emails asking for updates, I feel like I’m under a lot of pressure. And when I feel that pressure, it’s harder for me to focus, and my work tends to be rushed and full of mistakes.”

Using an “I Statement” such as this can allow you to be assertive, yet not confrontational. You can get your point across with less of a chance of sparking an argument. And by placing the focus on how an individual’s behavior impacts you, the individual is less likely to feel personally attacked. Instead, they’re likely to have a sympathetic understanding as to how their actions affect you. As a result, the conversation leads to finding solutions rather than defending a problem.

Putting it All Together

Individually, each of these strategies can have an effective impact on how you relate to others in the office, especially in situations when emotions run high or the tension is thick. But used together, they can have an even greater impact. Taking a moment to calm yourself in a heated moment can allow you to reconsider other ways to view a situation in order to decide how best to react. Then, you can take some time to communicate your feelings in an effective way. Though disagreements in the workplace are likely inevitable, arguments don’t have to be Strategies such as these can help keep conflict at bay so that you can stay motivated, productive, and fulfilled.