How to manage workplace stress

92An interview by Dr. Alice Waagen with therapist Anne Lee of Bethesda Counseling Associates

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The ability to manage conflict in the workplace is a critical skill, one that can significantly affect job security, says therapist Anne Lee of Bethesda Counseling Associates.

But few of us consider that our own behavior can be adding to the stress of our workplace. Understanding the difference between being assertive and aggressive can be the key to communicating effectively with others — and easing some of the tension with a boss and colleagues.

Alice Waagen: As people feel more and more stressed at work, their attitudes can suffer — and sometimes get downright aggressive. That doesn’t always play so well when it comes to talking to a boss or even a co-worker.

Anne Lee: That’s right. People can get frustrated, which comes across as anger, and because they don’t know what else to do they lash out.

It’s important to remember that an aggressive statement is a put down of its receiver, which in turn evokes a defensive response. It implies criticism not of the message, but of the messenger. “This was a lousy report,” “You never seem to be around when you are needed,” “You never give clear directions,” are examples of aggressive statements, and though the intent may be positive, the effect in the workplace is negative.

Alice Waagen: What can an employee do to get their point across without risking being perceived as aggressive?

Anne Lee: They can switch their tone and make an assertive statement, which never undermines the receiver. It sets clear boundaries and states what is needed to move forward. The receiver does not feel humiliated or defensive and there is room to ask questions or acknowledge problems. Assertive messages express the reactions or feelings of the speaker.

“That was a lousy report” becomes “I did not understand the report” or “I found the report confusing.” Assertive messages are also specific, such as “The conclusion is not supported by the data.”

Remember, too, that assertiveness can be used to countermand the negative effects of aggressive interactions. In fact, assertive responses allow the receiver to stay away from counteraccusations and de-escalate a situation.

An assertive message from a receiver would describe what is objectionable: “I am open to criticism, but the word ‘lousy’ feels like an attack.” An assertive response would also focus on the issue at hand, and propose a solution: “Why don’t we discuss changes that would improve the report?” or “Why don’t you email me changes to improve it?”

Employees can also enhance the delivery of assertive messages by using appropriate body language. Maintain proper eye contact by using a relaxed and steady gaze, stand up straight and keep your voice quiet, even and well-modulated.

Alice Waagen: What are some other strategies for communicating effectively with colleagues?

Anne Lee: Begin your statements with an “I” rather than a “You.” “I didn’t understand your conclusion” versus “You wrote a sloppy conclusion.” It is a much more effective way to get your point across.

• Ask open-ended questions. “Why did you include this in the report?” implies a judgment. Using “what or how” is more effective in eliciting information. “What was your reasoning for including this in the report?”

• Make observations that comment on what is going on without judgment. “I noticed you left the room in a hurry. Are you upset?”

• Nothing is ever all bad or all good, so challenge your perception of a person or situation. Can you think of positive aspects or exceptions?

• If you find yourself entangled in an aggressive interaction, disengage from the situation to defuse it. “Let me go back and take another look. We can review this again later.”

For more information about managing workplace stress, contact Anne Lee at
Bethesda Counseling Associates — (301) 654-1583.