Workplace performance and productivity are critical issues for so many of us during those 30 to 60 hours that we put in every week at work. And communications is such a critical aspect of how the environment feels. Sometimes, things go really well and everything clicks. Other times, things seem to thump and bump and rattle…

Two thirds of American workers say that communication bottlenecks or a simple lack of information negatively affects productivity and performance. And there are things we can do to improve things.

Let’s start with this well-known picture:

Brewer Obama

The above is a great picture of communication between President Obama and Governor Jan Brewer taken in Arizona taken in 2012. Following this encounter, the AZ Governor said, “I was trying to be gracious!” and she also called Obama “thin-skinned” on national TV. (Wow, think of how she would act if she were angry or frustrated!  And how is “employee morale” throughout the entire state of Arizona these days? Think that there is a precedent for potential violence among the citizens if the leaders are communicating so graciously with others?)

Non-verbal communication conveys very strong messages and often gets us into trouble, especially when we are attempting to de-escalate an angry person.

While we tend to focus on verbal communication, logic and reason to calm others, there are also some environmental things you can look to do. If you find yourself in a confrontation or argument and discover that nothing that you say is working, it just may be the immediate surroundings and your body language that are having an influence. It may also be a chain of previous communications that this one is anchored to in either or both parties.

We all interpret non-verbal communication differently. A certain gesture or posture may be anchored to the past experience of the other person and trigger an unexpected or unanticipated response. There are also some gestures that commonly show aggression that other person will respond to, such as pointing your finger at their chest or face (or poking them!).

Our life experience, our belief system and our judgments collectively help us interpret both words and body language. So, we never know what is going to trigger the other person’s hostility or an aggressive reaction. We all have personal histories and anchors to emotional states that can be triggered by other people’s behaviors, much like the screech of car tires reminds some people of accidents and pain.

The best idea is to be situationally aware and to have some ideas about what you can choose to do differently within that conversation, what we can call “behavioral versatility” or “behavioral alternatives.” These will be both verbal and non-verbal choices.

Remember that if you are uncomfortable with confrontation and conflict, the chances are high that you will show some of this with your non-verbal and even verbal behaviors. Planning on such a conversation, you might consider some of these possibilities for the conversation:

  • Be prepared and think things through beforehand. Gather your thoughts about the information you need, desired outcomes that are acceptable, the likely perspectives that they will have that might be different from yours and other related frameworks. Consider possibilities and have a goal of gaining resolution.
  • Find a neutral place, generally away from others who might contribute to the emotionality of the scene. For some people, that might be a public non-workplace location like a coffee shop or similar. For others, a more private conference room or similar. Do not choose to isolate yourself if you expect any kind of physical threat to occur.
  • Develop a neutral posture and position so your weight is evenly distributed over your feet. Respect their personal distance and stand at least two feet away from the person that you are attempting to de-escalate. This neutral stance will give you a stronger presence and will be more comfortable. Understand that different cultures have different personal distances, so be aware of both.
  • If you are nervous or uncomfortable, try to push down on your toes to distract you as well as gain some control. Think about it as pushing the emotion and adrenaline out of your body. This is a simple approach to decreasing tension.
  • Prepare yourself to look the person in the eye even if you are uncomfortable with this. Most people who are nervous or afraid of conflict will look down or away and thus not seem serious. At the same time, do not overdo the eye contact, since sustained eye contact is a predator behavior and our brains are wired to see that as being aggressive!

A reality of this is that if you are comfortable with dealing with conflict and have a knack for de-escalation and confrontation, you may be seen as the aggressor and immediately put the other person or the group on the defensive – that expectation can work for you or against you, depending on the situation and the other person’s beliefs. Pushing will generally result in resistance, so be aware of that possibility. You are looking to resolve the conflict, not stomp it!

Being friendly is good and generally useful. Being flippant and unconcerned will most often work against you and increase their emotionality about the situation. Smirking is not normally conducive to effective communicating. You are trying to generate or maintain rapport with the other person.

bush smirk

If you are aggressive in the way you de-escalate conflict, here are a few tips to follow:

  • Avoid pointing your finger and ensure that your hands are empty.
  • Avoid smiling or smirking as it may be seen as mockery or condescending behavior on your part.
  • Be at the same eye level. If you are taller, suggest that you sit.
  • Ensure that your posture is upright and relaxed. Uptight or overly erect posture can be seen as extreme or commanding.
  • Relax your facial muscles as much as possible and relax but pay attention.
  • Look into the other person’s eyes no more than 85% of the time. Constant, continual eye contact can escalate the situation because it is a sign of aggression.

The person who is angry often simply wants to be heard and have their beliefs listened to. 

Until they feel like someone understands, they will remain angry and frustrated. What you say and how you react are important in de-escalating the conversation and you will do this through what you say and your non-verbal communications. Something triggered their initial behavior and that needs to be addressed before the situation can be resolved.

Listen to what they are telling you; it is important to them and often a lot more important than you think it might be. “Blowing them off” or simply “Winning the argument” is not going to solve the problem or address the issues.

Note that if you simply want to get them angry so they quit or you can fire them, do all of the above to simply increase your ability to annoy them.

Lastly, do NOT do ANY of this stuff at home with spouses or teenagers, since that can get very expensive. Finding a new place to live is also time consuming…

Two last thoughts:

It’s not about the nail” is a great short video on two people talking and problem solving.


It takes two to tango. It also takes two to play paintball.

Scott small pic

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. 
Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at

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