Fishing Coins Out Of Fire.


A Framework To Help You Deal With Aggressive Feedback On The Work Floor.

This article for goldfish:

  • Anger is feedback, albeit delivered in a poor manner.
  • Our ‘jungle brain’ gives us two options: fight or flight. Both options will lead to a toxic work environment.
  • It’s imperative to de-escalate aggressive feedback and filter the facts from the emotion.

This article for humans:

Feedback is essential on the road to success (read here why).

It’s hard enough to listen to constructive feedback with an open mind, let alone when the feedback is delivered in a poor manner.

Anger is still feedback, albeit delivered in an aggressive manner.

In an ideal situation, you’d be able filter the facts from the emotion, but that’s incredibly hard to do in the heat of the moment. Especially if it caught you off-guard.

It’s like trying to fish coins out of a fire with your bare hands.

Controlling the jungle brain.

Emotional confrontations automatically trigger an emotional reaction back. Our jungle brain gets into action and gives us two options: fight or flight. Some people will fight fire with fire (fight), others will shut down (flight).

Realize that there are no winners here, in neither of these situations.

Fighting fire with fire will lead to destructive escalation. Shutting down will lead to a walkover and often humiliation. Both will result in a toxic work environment, which will impact the business negatively.

All that the limbic system of our brain (jungle brain) cares about is survival. Hence, it reacts to stressful situation with its ‘fight or flight’ approach. It is not well equipped to deal with stressful situations that are not life-threatening. The problem is that the jungle brain is a LOT faster than the more developed part of the brain in control of our cognitive skills, our frontal lobe.

In stressful situations like these, it’s important to give your frontal lobe the time to keep the jungle brain in check. Separate yourself from your emotional reaction, observe it as it happens and try to stay calm. Doing so, gives you time to figure out a way to de-escalate the situation and separate the facts from the emotion.

Fight fire by cooling down the room first. Then grab the coins when the fire dies down.

Helpful tip: Keep in mind anger often covers for another, less threatening emotion. Anger often comes forth out of guilt, hurt or fear. Not so long ago, I was yelled at for a mistake I made unknowingly, only to find out later that my Manager was only angry, because he was afraid the Founder of the company would look at this mistake in isolation and make the irrational decision to fire me. My Manager was afraid he’d lose me if I made another mistake like this. Although his delivery of the message was poor, he was actually trying to protect me. If you see the situation through these glasses, his behaviour was a lot less threatening than it appeared to be.

From rage to a constructive conversation in 9 steps.


Your co-worker storms in the room and starts yelling at you. 

De-escalation time. Let’s go.

1. Address the emotional reaction, using their first name.

E.g. “Adam, it seems like you’re upset. Can you lower your voice, so we can have a constructive conversation?”

Keep eye contact and stay calm.

2. Listen to his/her point of view. Do NOT interrupt.

3. Summarize what has been said, repeat it back and get confirmation.

E.g. “So what you are saying is… Did I get that right?”

4. Validate the emotional reaction. Own up to it: offer your apology for being the trigger of this reaction.

E.g. “I see why that would upset you. I am sorry I made you feel that way, it was not my intention.”

5. Admit the actions you took were wrong, IF this is the case.

E.g. “I understand that (fill in whatever you did was wrong) was the wrong thing to do.”

6. Share your point of view. Ask for permission if needed, the other party will be less likely to interrupt you if you do.

E.g. “Can I share my side of the story?”

7. Address interruptions if needed.

E.g. “Adam, can you please let me finish?” (first time)

E.g. “We can’t have a constructive conversation if you keep interrupting me.” (second time)

8. Come to a mutual understanding of the situation. Summarize what has been said and get confirmation from the other party.

9. Discuss how to move forward. Make sure to discuss both immediate actions that need to be taken (crisis management) and what can be done to prevent a similar situation in the future. Let the other party take the initiative.

E.g. “What can I do to make things better?” / “What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?”

If the conversation keeps escalating, don’t be afraid to end the dialogue and reschedule to continue the conversation later on, giving everyone the time to calm down.

  • Final warning: “I need you to lower your voice / stop interrupting me or we will have to reschedule this. This is not constructive.”
  • Calling it an end: “I asked you to lower your voice / stop interrupting me. We can’t move forward like this. Let’s give it a break and set up a meeting tomorrow morning.”

Walk away if you have to.

Depending on the power imbalance between you and the other party, this can be incredibly difficult to do, but you’ll have to be brave in order to still be able to work together in the future.

Nobody wins when there’s a walkover.

All of this is easier said than done. I hope this framework will help you deal with future confrontations in a more effective way.

If you’re interested in learning more about effective communication on the work floor, I’d highly recommend you to read ‘The Chameleon: The Art Of Adaptive Leadership – Part 2’. Note that this article is for newsletter subscribers only, but I promise, it’s worth your time. Just follow the link or subscribe below.

Good luck!

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About the author

Wesley van der Hoop

Dutchman living in The Bahamas. I get excited about digital marketing, writing, traveling, surfing and learning new things.

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