Your internal work chats will sometimes flare up. Here’s what you can do about it

A person holding a heart in front of a wall of angry messages.
Illustration by Jutta Kivilompolo
May 24, 2021

Read time 5 min

Kati Vilkki is a seasoned coach and organization whisperer, passionate about creating environments where people can grow to their full potential.  She is looking forward to meeting people by chance and having ad hoc discussions by the coffee machine again.

What can we do to create an environment where people feel safe to speak up when they have something to say?

We’ve all experienced it – the organization phenomenon that can be summed up in the words “That escalated quickly.” A message on your company’s internal chat turns into a heated discussion of harsh words and hurt feelings. Hundreds of messages and multiple participants later everyone’s left worse off, confused, and nothing’s been accomplished. 

I don’t think it’s possible to completely avoid these gates, but we can learn to handle them much better.

Yes, we can all learn to communicate better, but there will always be times when we disagree, have strong emotions, and even get annoyed, hurt, or angry.

Our online mediums actually support these flares: As communications channels, they’re very narrow, because they leave no room for context, body language, or softening factors. They take away eye contact, smiles, laughters, and tone. They also demand high speed and reactiveness, everything happens now.

We’re especially likely to end up in these internal gates when we are tired or stressed out. Stress reduces both our cognitive skills and our ability to feel empathy for others. So when stressed, we are more irritable and less intelligent than usually – not a good combination, I think.  

I don’t believe the answer is trying to limit certain topics or discussion nor enforcing strict communications rules. 

The most important thing is to learn how to handle these situations constructively and to come out of them stronger, so that trust in the community is increased.

What actually happens when communication goes off the rails?

It’s important to understand what happens in these heated situations. That makes it easier to recognize them as they happen, and to react better too. Here’s how I’ve seen things escalate:

Person A has a stronger-than-expected reaction to person B’s words or actions. B sees this as an unfair reaction, as an attack, and in turn, responds accordingly. Both A and B end up feeling wronged and misunderstood. 

The first reaction from others can also come down like a ton of bricks, crushing the initial communicator underneath. This leaves the person – and others who witnessed the situation – unsure and afraid to speak up ever again.

As this happens on an open or semi-open platform, some of the by-standers choose sides and join in the conversation. Others look in awe, afraid to comment or do anything, because they don’t want to get caught in the cross-fire – or out of fear of adding fuel to the fire.

It doesn’t have to go like this.

So what can we do to create an environment where people feel safe to speak up when they have something to say? An environment in which it is safe to disagree, to be vulnerable, to feel, and to be fully human?

Support a cycle of trust

I’ve written and spoken about the cycle of trust in organizations for a long time.  In the cycle of trust, the organization reinforces trust and psychological safety, which helps us communicate better, and thus increase psychological safety and trust even further.

First, we can take responsibility for the way we interact. We can aim to communicate as clearly and respectfully as we can, and listen to others with an open mind. We can speak up when we feel strong emotions or social pain and we can apologize and make amends when we see others hurt and angered by what we say or do. 

When the ultimately unavoidable difficult situation arises, we can address the flair in the spirit of responsibility – and without blaming, justification, shame, or obligation. The more we can speak up with compassion when we notice emotions brewing within us and in others, the better our interaction will eventually get.

When others tell us that they feel hurt, we can try to listen with an open mind and with respect. When others apologise or tell us they’re trying to practice behaving differently, we can show empathy.

Even if we’re not able to catch our emotions or initial reactions the moment they emerge, it’s valuable to reflect afterwards what brought them on. Re-connecting with the people involved and making our observations visible is a way to defuse built-up tensions. It also lowers the bar for others to do the same.

We have many opportunities to turn the discussion around. Every single time we post or respond to what someone else has posted, we have an opportunity to create a constructive dialogue. Every time we observe a heated discussion, we have a choice to intervene and change the course. And after every heated discussion we have a chance to learn, repair relationships, and regain trust.

Here are some practical examples of what you can do the next time you find yourself in a (potential) heated internal discussion:

  • Take a break. You don’t have to react immediately.
  • Talk it over with someone you trust to calm down.
  • Ask yourself “Will I add value with this comment?”
  • Apologize when someone is hurt, even if your intention was not to hurt.
  • Ask a friend for feedback or help to formulate your message
  • Contact people privately to get or offer support.
  • Organise a facilitated dialogue for people who have been in the discussion so that there is a chance for all to get heard.
  • Agree with the discussion parties on how to sum up the discussion to a public channel afterwards if it’s OK with everyone.

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