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An Employer’s Guide to De-Escalating Workplace Conflict

March 2, 2024

In today’s environment of contentious politics, international conflicts, social discord and online outrage, emotions are running high. This volatility is spilling into the workplace, sometimes with devastating results.

About 85% of employees have experienced workplace conflict, according to a 2024 report from the market data firm Gitnux. The disputes can be devastating to workplace culture and employee well-being. They contribute to rising rates of anxiety, depression, disengagement and even turnover.

Workplace conflicts become even more alarming when anger escalates to verbal threats or physical confrontations. Given the current climate and potential consequences of office hostility, training employees on de-escalating threatening behavior is critical.

Steps to de-escalate conflict

To reduce aggression in the moment, train employees to meet anger with composure and understanding. The following techniques provide a blueprint for de-escalating interpersonal conflicts:

  • Listen.
  • Remain calm.
  • Respect personal space.
  • Demonstrate empathy.
  • Move away from crowds, if possible.
  • Provide options.


Often, an upset person simply wants to be heard. Listening is a powerful technique for de-escalation.

During heightened conflicts, don’t respond unless the aggressor asks you to. When responding, repeat their words back to them in a slightly rephrased, work-appropriate manner.

Don’t interrupt an angry colleague or try to change the topic. Nod along and show you’re actively engaged in the conversation.

Remain calm

Responding to anger with frustration will only escalate a conflict. Instead, relax your tone of voice and body language.

Take slow breaths to prevent your voice from rising. Keep your tone level and engaged. Speaking slowly can be soothing and reduce tension.

Body language is another essential factor. Maintain a relaxed stance. Your hands should always be visible, preferably down by your side. Make sure they are open, not balled into fists. Avoid crossing your arms, gritting your teeth or exhaling loudly. Likewise, don’t gesture forcefully or pace around. Keep your movements slow and predictable.

Respect personal space

During a conflict, keep a safe distance. Never reach out or touch someone who is upset or aggressive.

Try to stand more to the side of an agitated person rather than directly in front of them. Don’t block an exit in case they need to leave and calm themselves.

Demonstrate empathy

When a person is upset, be curious about their feelings and what they hope to achieve. Ask questions showing your concern, including: “Can I speak with you more about this?” “Is there a way I can help right now?”

Avoid judgmental or dismissive statements. Even a simple phrase such as “I know” can escalate the situation if the person feels like nobody understands their pain. Instead, use words such as “That sounds upsetting” or “That would be difficult.”

However, don’t force or fake emotions. Inauthentic feelings and words can increase anger.

Move people away, if possible

Individuals may react more strongly if they are being watched or feeling judged. If possible, ask those not involved to leave the area. This technique provides further protection in case the situation escalates.

Sometimes, getting the upset person to change locations is easier. In this scenario, state your desire to help and ask permission: “I’d like to keep talking with you to figure out some solutions. Can we go somewhere more private to continue the conversation?”

Provide options

Attempting to solve a problem together can quickly decrease tension. It shows immediate support and validates the other person’s feelings.

Instead of denying their requests or saying, “I can’t do that,” focus on ways you can help. If there truly is nothing you can do, brainstorm other solutions or suggest someone who can help. This person could be inside your organization or an external adviser such as a mutual friend or trusted contact.

Additional resources

Planning and training are essential to preventing and mitigating workplace threats. A written plan demonstrates organizational commitment and provides employees with clear steps. Follow it up with regular communications about employee wellness, anger management and de-escalation strategies.

Training programs provide a safe space for employees to practice these techniques and learn about other resources, such as where and when to seek help in the office.

For more information, including help with training opportunities and drafting a de-escalation plan, talk to your benefits adviser.

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