Expert-Backed Strategies for Staying Calm in Times of Confrontation

4 min read

Career Trends: June 27, 2022
Curated by the Knowledge Team of ICS Career GPS


During heated moments, empathy allows us to humanise the other person so that we can take a better stock of the situation.

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The fact is, confrontation can turn us into someone we don’t like. All of a sudden we might blurt out something to a colleague or client we immediately regret. In the heat of the moment, we become impulsive. Remaining calm seems like some faraway utopia — one where everyone acts reasonably. Some people will avoid confrontation altogether; others will lean into it and make situations far worse.

“At times like this, you might wish you could hit that reset button and have a do-over,” writes Harvard Business Review contributor, Amy Jen Su. But as she also notes it’s not easy to stay cool and engaged when things get heated in meetings, negotiations, or difficult conversations.

However, having a level-headed approach is key for maintaining a harmonious workplace and cultivating positive relationships.

The Art of Staying Calm

Staying calm during heated moments isn’t about appeasing the other party just to keep the peace. It’s also not about firmly standing your ground and blurting out something equally offensive. Believe it or not, the art in staying calm lies primarily in empathy. Empathy allows us to humanise the other person so that we can take a better stock of the situation.

“Empathy is not about agreement. Nor is it the same as giving in, being passive, or allowing the other person to mistreat you,” writes Jen Su.

By allowing the other person to vent, you also gain access to other important facts, assumptions, and constraints at play — all critical information for bridging the gap between you and the other person.

Here are some strategies your can adapt to manage yourself during confrontational situations:

1. Learn to manage your triggers

  • Many of us are unaware of when we’re feeling threatened. When we perceive an attack, we’re much more likely to respond irrationally.
  • The key to staying calm during confrontation, then, is to recognise our triggers.
  • Dr. David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute explains that there are five main social threats that act as potential stressors.

These include:

  • Feeling like your competence or expertise is being undermined
  • Being micromanaged
  • Seeing a situation as unfair

To override our impulses, experts recommend pausing or taking a few deep breaths before responding.

Even grabbing a glass of water can give you the space needed to give yourself a chance to think things through and have more productive conversations.

2. Always convey respect

  • There is not one person who hasn’t said something that at some point they’ve not regretted.
  • But according to Jen Su, it’s important that we communicate respect even when faced with disagreement.
  • “The reality is that we are not always going to agree with our colleagues,” she says. “However, disagreement does not have to come with disrespect.”

Some of her recommended phrases to use are:

  • “I’ve always valued your judgment and opinions.”
  • “In listening to your thoughts, I’m having a hard time getting myself comfortable moving in that direction.”
  • “I think we’re having a difference of opinion.”

3. Be accountable

  • Remaining calm in the face of confrontation lies in our ability to empathise. Ultimately, we want to build bridges, not burn them down.
  • If you end up losing your cool, take ownership of your side of things.
  • Acknowledge shared perspectives and that you’re open to listening more closely.
  • As Jen Su puts it, “while we can’t change what’s already happened, we do always have the choice to reach out, connect with others, and demonstrate a more constructive and committed ‘Take 2’.”


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(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the above mentioned article are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of ICS Career GPS or its staff.)

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