How to Deescalate a Difficult Situation and Communicate More Effectively with Colleagues

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David Abisai Corbalá | November 01, 2022

As much as we may strive for it, we don’t always see eye to eye on our teams. Differences of opinion are inevitable and, if we’re not careful with how we communicate, we can raise the temperature in an already heated situation. It is during these moments that we need to be careful and deliberate on how we speak for our message to be received with the same intent with which it was delivered.  

Callous Critics or Careful Examiners? 

A QA friend told me about a time when his team had found a pretty considerable security vulnerability in the product. Unfortunately, in an effort to fulfill the release within the established time, a decision was made to put this security fix on the back burner. The QA Team found themselves at an impasse since the urgency and scope of this vulnerability made it unacceptable to release without a fix. 

The matter was escalated and release was delayed until the vulnerability was fixed. The QA Team was suddenly viewed as saboteurs, delaying and belittling the Devs’ hard work. 

How could they have addressed the situation without making an apparent attack on the Dev Team? 

W.E.E.: The Three Pillars of De-escalation 

Warmth: Experts estimate anywhere between 70%-90% of communication is nonverbal, with tone falling within that category. That means NO emails and NO messages. Take some time to address the situation with a videocall, and be careful to portray a desire to help and compromise through your tone and expression. Our tone should be genuine, express kindness, and show interest. 
 
Empathy: Have you ever stubbed your toe and had someone say “You should’ve been paying more attention”? They might be 100% right and it’s important to acknowledge our mistakes, but that might be difficult to see through the searing pain of a stubbed toe. Remember to validate the team’s frustration - “I would also be stressed if I were in your shoes. I apologize if my approach might have been combative”. 

Empowerment: Finally, focus on what CAN be done. Don’t let this turn into a Pity Party. More specifically, tell them what YOU can do FOR THEM, not the other way around. Show them a capability for resolution and willingness to help. “I’d love to know how I can help. We want to understand the challenges we’re facing and what we can do better to overcome them”. 

It can be easy to point fingers or forget that there are people behind the hundreds of emails and endless slack threads. By putting these three concepts into practice, we can allow others to feel safe when receiving feedback, which will in turn build a willingness to overcome these challenges as a team. 

On a Final Note... 
 
People are not an exact science and when learning about concepts such as de-escalation and effective communication, we tend to be robotic and rely on memorized phrases and buzzwords. Remember: Exercise nuance and make each interaction your own.  
 

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