How to have a professional argument in the workplace (infographic)

Tension in the office? Human relationships are hard enough at the best of times, let alone when all that’s brought you together is ‘professional coincidence.’ Usually an argument at work either means that everyone is super-passionate about doing a great job (and has their own idea how to do it) or there’s one person who really isn’t pulling their weight.

Either way, productivity is compromised and the atmosphere remains tense until you can figure out how to resolve this dispute in a professional manner. But because the rules and the relationships are different to those in your personal life, a situation like this requires a certain level of technique to rectify. In fact, the ability to resolve workplace arguments effectively is a professional skill in itself; it’s just that it’s rarely mentioned, and even more rarely taught.

So what kind of steps does a skill like this involve?

Preparing to argue

Whether the tension is bubbling or it’s already spilled over into words, it’s best to deal with things more formally as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean starting ‘proceedings’ so much as acknowledging that there is an issue, creating a plan to resolve it before irrevocable damage is done, and scheduling a meeting to get both sides heard: at this point, it’s important to note that your aim should not be to ‘win’ but to get the best outcome for the individuals and business as a collective.

Create an agenda for the meeting so that everyone has a chance to prepare. And then get yourself seriously prepared. Think your argument through, and collect statistics and data to back it up – it’s hard to argue with a graph! If it’s a disciplinary matter, this ‘data’ should include fact a comparison of behavior vs. code of conduct, or a diary detailing those times when performance didn’t meet expectations. Whether it’s a disciplinary matter or not, it’s important to keep a workplace argument to facts and details rather than personal opinions or accusations.

Research thoroughly, but don’t overdo your argument plan. It’s better to have two or three bold, irrefutable points than to water them down by trying to cover everything that’s on your mind. Know the situation deeply so you can respond, but don’t feel like you have to express everything that you’ve researched.

And don’t forget to think through the other side of the argument, too. This has two main benefits. First, you may actually realize that the other argument has something positive to contribute for the benefit of the business. And second, being forearmed like this can help you smash the other guy’s argument into the ground! (Joke).

In the meeting room

All the preparation in the world is no use if you walk into the argument in the wrong frame of mind or even with the wrong body language. Whether your ‘meeting’ is spontaneous or you had a chance to schedule it and do your research, be sure to remain calm, open-minded, and reasonable.

This is not to say that emotions have no place in a workplace argument, but only that they should figure respectfully in the discussion. Raising your voice can actually impede your ability to mentally process what’s going on. If you find you’re losing control, suggest a refreshment or toilet break, or a change of scene. If appropriate, explain how you’re feeling but connect it the ‘whys,’ and try not to use accusing language (‘because you do this.’) As right as you may be, and as legitimate as your rage or humiliation might be, this will only make it harder to get your point across.

Preparing your research as visuals (or being ready to whip out a whiteboard and pen) will help you to externalize and distract from your anger if it’s becoming difficult to control. Visual aids may also make it easier to follow the line of your argument (for you and them!). They may remain visible for several minutes at a time, which can be more effective than a one-off statement that gets lost in the discussion. Involving others in the visuals – for example, making a list of pros and cons or handing out sticky-notes for suggestions – can help to keep everyone involved and inspired, working towards a resolution that is best for the business.

In terms of body language, facing the person with whom you’re arguing, keeping your arms open (not folded) and your devices out of reach so that you (visibly) pay attention to the other person and make them feel heard will strengthen your position. In fact, it will help you too, since a relaxed body position can decrease cortisol levels by 25%, so that you’re less stressed while arguing.

The aftermath

Things can often feel awkward after an argument, whether you ‘won,’ lost, or a compromise was made. This is because emotions ran closer to the surface than usual, and arguing can in fact be a form of intimacy, because both sides reveal things they normally wouldn’t.

Chances are, you will still be working together after the argument, and even if one person ends up quitting there’s always the chance your professional paths will cross again. In any case, you’re human beings, so it’s reasonable to apologize if you were shown to be wrong or if you were out of line while tempers were raised.

If, on the other hand, the argument wasn’t resolved, think about bringing a mediator in rather than just letting the situation stew. It could be someone from the HR department or even an outside professional if it is that serious. Try working through it in a neutral space and setting some ground rules regarding privacy/confidentiality and the manner of the discussion before continuing.

A well-run argument can actually be very beneficial for all involved, bringing you closer, creating new ideas, and releasing long-simmering tension. For more tips on how to argue effectively and productively in the work place, take a look at this new visual guide from the experts at

How to have a productive argument at work - infographic

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