We’ve all been there: the tense meeting, the adrenaline-spiked email, the feeling that we’ve hit the same speed bump a thousand times before. When tensions rise at work, we tend to subsume, get passive aggressive, or maybe plain old aggressive. And then just use our fallback coping mechanism to get through the rest of the day.
What if there was another way to handle those recurring moments when fight or flight kicks in? Brad Heckman, professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and founder of the New York Peace Institute, has brought a mediator’s mindset everywhere from NYPD trainings to the postwar Balkans. In between diffusing global crises and intergenerational animus between astronauts, we asked Heckman for a few of the mediation tricks that help him loosen the jam jar of stuck conversations.
From asking open-ended questions to remembering that everyone is better than their worst self, Heckman had more wisdom than we could write down. Here are seven tactics for when things get tense at the office to help you diffuse the war at the water cooler.
1. Know your brain
Our brain isn’t at its best when it’s in a conflict situation. “Our response to difficult conversations is neurologically the same response to fear: the fight, flight, or freeze response,” says Heckman. In that caveman state of mind, we resort to primitive protective behavior that sees everything as a threat. Sure, it’s natural. But your brain operating at five-alarm fire level isn’t going to help you navigate a nuanced conversation. When you feel that internal escalation, Heckman suggests using high-level executive functioning by thinking, “‘Oh this is really interesting, what’s happening is my reptilian brain is taking over.’ Just that awareness itself can be helpful,” he says.
2. Assume good intentions
When we’ve got our knickers in a twist, we think the other person is on a mission to screw us over. We start to read every action through that pessimistic, self-preserving lens. “When we are in conflict, our view of the other person becomes so narrow that we only see them as a disruptive jerk and not a fleshed-out person,” says Heckman. Take a beat. Try to assume that the other person is acting in good faith. That baseline assumption can get you through plenty of instances of misplaced tone and timing.
3. Good communication is a full body experience
Body language speaks volumes. In his recurring role working with police officers, Heckman coaches them away from nonverbal habits like aggressive gestures or getting in other people’s faces. “Yes, the person will quiet down, but more so because they’re scared than because they’re respecting you,” he tells them. “Good communication is a full body experience,” he says. “It’s how we breathe. It’s our tone. It’s our gestures.” Your body language isn’t only talking to the other party; it’s sending a message to your brain as well. Cultivate habits like keeping an open expression (Heckman says to replicate big cow eyes), avoid defaulting to crossed arms, and taking deep breaths to help change the tenor of an interaction. It’s a reflective mind game, says Heckman, because the other person will likely start to mirror your behavior too.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat
“Every person I’ve ever met has said things they didn’t mean or in a way that didn’t match their intentions,” says Heckman. Repeating or summarizing their words back to them in a form like, “What I’m hearing you say is…” creates a feedback loop that allows someone to course correct or dial it back. It’ll save you both from a heck of a lot of miscommunication.
5. Reflect, reflect, reflect
In practice, reflecting is a mediation tactic that looks exactly like repetition. But it’s doing something possibly even more important: It’s telling someone that they’ve been heard. If a colleague says they’re feeling underappreciated, don’t skip right to solutions. Pause to recognize how they’ve been feeling. It may feel dumb to parrot back, “I hear that you’ve been feeling undervalued,” but taking a moment to acknowledge tells the other person that you get where they’re coming from. “We hear from our clients all the time,” says Heckman, “that people value being heard and understood more than they value a detailed agreement. Agreements and resolutions are important, but being heard is a necessary step for that.”
6. Ask open ended questions
A mediation mindset is a place for trying to get to the root of an issue. That might mean proceeding without an agenda and just trying to learn more. In recent years, Heckman was called to NASA to help build accord between astronauts and engineers from the Apollo years, who were not getting along with the new crop of millennials. One group came from a hierarchical military background and one was birthed among the ping pong tables and bean bag chairs of Google and Facebook. “There’s a lack of understanding that translates into one dimensional stereotype about ‘old fuddy duddies’ and ‘entitled kids,’” recalls Heckman. Heckman’s approach was to use open-ended questions: “So, you want to have a fun and creative environment. How do you see that helping your workplace?” And on the other hand: “Order and hierarchy are important for you. Can you tell me why?” Keep the questions to six words or fewer. And don’t think too much. Just be curious. Ultimately, at NASA, Heckman struck the bedrock of a shared desire for a kickass space program: a common vision both parties could respect. (It’s unclear if NASA ever ordered bean bag chairs…)
7. Go towards the heat
One of the traps of digging into hard conversations is a desire to get to a copacetic place where everyone feels better. “Sometimes, we’re so afraid of going toward the heat, that we end up being falsely polite or even passive aggressive with the other person,” says Heckman. Instead of aiming for the easy offramp, head for the fiery core of the issue. “An agreement that’s reached in haste is not likely to be sticky or durable,” says Heckman. So, dig in. Find the pain points. And, before getting wrapped up in resolving, acknowledge how they’re affecting everyone. The ultimate goal of mediation, after all, isn’t agreement. It’s understanding.
Brad Heckman is also an illustrator and artist. In addition to illustrating his trainings and lectures with his drawings, he produces daily “sketchquotes” that capture the essence and words of inspiring people from across all walks of life. They have been shown in numerous exhibitions, with his self-portrait and some others included in this article.