Handling Difficult Workplace Situations: Learning to Unhook

If you’re the kind of person who thinks of what you wished you would have said in a particular situation at work several hours or days after the confrontation, you’re not alone. It happens to more people than you think. When the interaction comes as a surprise or in the middle of a high-pressure time, it’s hard to get your brain and your mouth working together. There’s a lot of good and not-so-good advice out there on what to do when this happens at work. In this article, I’ll look mostly at the big picture of handling difficult workplace situations, but also point you to some great resources with good advice for specific incidents and how to respond.

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In Difficult Workplace Situations, Learn How to Unhook

If you’re like most people, there’s at least one person in your workplace who manages to constantly drive you crazy. There’s the coworker whose never-ending personal dramas seem to constantly find their way into the workplace, whether it’s not-so-private phone calls or complaining directly to anyone and everyone around them. Then there are the people who take credit for your ideas or even your work.

And don’t forget the food thief responsible for the disappearance of people’s food in the staff lounge, even when it’s clearly labeled. Maybe it’s the gossiper, or the personal space invader, or the loud talker, or the time-waster who really gets on your nerves. These are all classics, and some are worse than others, but over time their repeated behaviors can eventually drive you over the edge. If you snap, it could get ugly. Learning the art of how to unhook in these situations could save you from either feeling like you have to quit your job or from blowing up in a way that does more harm than good to yourself and others.

The philosophy here is simple: Change your reaction and you’ll change your life. You can’t stop yourself from feeling emotions. But here’s the thing: Emotions pass. They rise up live a wave, reach a crest, and then they will recede (even though in the moment it feels like they won’t). The key is to control your reaction when the wave is at its highest point because that’s when you’re in the danger zone of potentially behaving in a way that doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. What can you do? Unhook!

Unhooking Physically from Difficult Workplace Situations

A physical way of unhooking is to calm yourself with a little deep breathing to let that cresting wave of emotion break and begin receding. Take a deep breath in for several seconds, hold it for several seconds, and then let it out slowly. At first, you may need to repeat this a few times before you feel yourself cooling down. But if you make it habitual in difficult workplace situations, your body will soon recognize it as a signal to cool off and you’ll only need a single deep breath to physically unhook.

Take a moment to pause and quickly reflect on the situation.

There are other ways to unhook physically, like going to the restroom and splashing water on your face. Going for a walk or some other form of exercise. Not all of them are possible or practical in the middle of a workplace scenario, which is why the deep breathing technique is a good one to start with because you can do it subtly in nearly any situation, including a meeting if you need to.

Also note that these are all healthy ways to unhook physically. When you don’t deal with those emotions that wash over you and the same kinds of difficult workplace situations keep happening without any resolution, it can become easy for people to “self-medicate” in ways that aren’t healthy, such as drinking too much alcohol, overeating, taking drugs, and so on. The sad part is that none of these do anything to improve your situation. In fact, over time they only make things worse.

Unhooking Mentally

You can unhook mentally by just reminding yourself how you’re in control of how you react to the situation. Take a moment to pause and quickly reflect on the situation. First, ask yourself this: What is happening here? Make sure you understand what is happening from an objective viewpoint. Then ask yourself, what are the facts? Again, you want to see things clearly without letting your emotions cloud your vision. Then ask, what is their part in this? Identify what it is the other person has actually done.

And then you have to ask, what is your part in this? Like it or not, there is probably something you do that escalates the situation rather than deescalating it. When the chronically grumpy coworker snaps at you, maybe you take that person’s anger too personally when in reality it has nothing to do with you specifically. The people who constantly violate your sense of space and other boundaries may not know they’re crossing a line because you haven’t taken the responsibility to clearly communicate your boundaries.

Finally, ask yourself what your options are in terms of how you react to the situation. This is when you rationally figure out ways to get what you want or need while at the same time acknowledging the other person’s needs. You can almost always find ways to solve problems with people if you take the time to figure it out with a clear head.

Unhooking Verbally in Difficult Workplace Situations

Unhooking verbally means saying something that makes the point you need to make without lashing out in reactive anger or desperation. Sometimes it’s useful to have some pre-fab responses to specific situations that are bound to come up at some point in your workplace. This was covered in a Harvard Business Review article, 7 Tricky Work Situations, and How to Respond to Them. When you’re asked at the last minute to stay late for a meeting that’s running long but you can’t because of something such as a family obligation (like picking the kids up from daycare), say something along the lines of “I’m sorry, but I have another commitment.”

This works well because you aren’t saying why you need to leave on time, so you’re not risking people thinking you don’t have a good work ethic. And if anyone follows up by asking why you have to leave, you can make it clear it’s really none of their business by saying, “It’s just something I committed to long before this meeting was scheduled.” Brilliant, right? You can probably come up with all kinds of great things to say in specific situations if you give it some thought ahead of time. Just keep in mind that the idea with any verbal responses for unhooking have to take the high road so they lead to better outcomes, not the low road that only serves to entrench ill will and resentment.

Unhooking with a Business Tool

Since it’s difficult workplace situations we’re talking about, any time you can use a business tool to unhook is a good thing. This can help get things back on track and moving in the right direction. A business tool in this sense is any company policy, procedure or document that can be used to clarify a situation. For managers dealing with less-than-desirable performance in employees they supervise, the business tools at your disposal may include feedback through coaching and performance reviews where you can also point to the duties and expectations spelled out in position descriptions and so forth.

If the difficult situation includes any kind of harassment, whether it’s disrespect shown to women, LGBTQ folks, people of specific races or ethnicities, or anything else covered by workplace harassment policies, don’t be afraid to report it to the HR department – especially if you’re not comfortable speaking up directly to the coworkers engaging in disrespectful behavior. The phrase if you see something, say something comes to mind. Everyone has a responsibility to help make the workplace one that is tolerant and inclusive. Follow your company’s procedures for reporting harassment, whether it’s directed at you or not.

No one likes difficult workplace situations, but knowing how to handle them can make your life at work a lot better. The ideas presented in this article are based on the book Working with You is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself from Emotional Traps at Work by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster. It should be required reading at every company! Also check out our previous article, How to Work With and For Difficult People.

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