Diplomacy at the workplace: tips for biting your tongue

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how to bite your tongue at work; collegues having a serious conversation

There’s rarely a working week that will go by without the familiar feeling of your teeth clenching slightly, fists curling, lips pursed, a furrowed brow and the desire to stand on your chair and shout out, “NO you are WRONG. Wrong, wrong, wrong!“ (oh, how liberating it would be to do that – just the once).

Biting your tongue meaning

The art of biting your tongue is disagreeing without being disagreeable or in layperson’s terms, not saying what you really want when you know someone else is in the wrong. Let’s face it, you won’t achieve anything by shouting whilst standing on your chair and it’s absolutely crucial to maintain respectful relationships when at work, and in the rest of your life too.

When in disagreement with colleagues or professional partners, there are a few quick and simple tricks to ensure you remain diplomatic, polite and considered:

Pause and take a breath

This simple yet effective tip can be applied to many a life situation. Stopping, breathing and taking a moment to look at the facts pragmatically and considerably will help ensure that your emotions don’t get the best of you. Step back from the situation momentarily and evaluate what has been said. Is this your fight? What is known to be true? Has there been a misunderstanding?

At this point, it is worth acknowledging the strengths of others involved in the conversation – do they perhaps have insightful information that you were unaware of? Speak without hostility and in this framework and accept where others may be better informed. If you still disagree, stand your ground and use factual information to make your point, rather than forcing your opinion on someone simply because you’re their manager/certain you’re right/don’t have time to consider other options.

Use words with meaning

Diplomacy doesn’t mean keeping your opinions to yourself and being a people-pleaser. There are, however, ways to ensure your voice is heard and your argument is made successfully without coming across as aggressive. This centres on the idea that it isn’t what you say; it’s what people hear.

Keep an even tone of voice. This helps avoid heated discussions, retains an air of professional debate, and ensures that people don’t start to take things personally.  Indirect language is also good, such as “You might consider…“and “We could also look at…“ As well as providing feedback in the form of a question, “Have you thought of…?“ “Would you perhaps reflect on…?“

Choose your words carefully; always and never are loaded words, so throw them out or use them sparingly. Avoid emotional language and colloquial slang terms that can be insulting, even if you’re trying to lighten the mood. Sometimes this jokey familiarity can be seen as patronising and demeaning, suggesting that you aren’t listening and don’t value or respect the other party’s viewpoints. Also, be sure to avoid confrontational words that can be seen as unnecessarily aggressive and could be easily misinterpreted. For example, rather than “absolutely not“, “you have to be kidding me“, or “there’s no way“, try simply saying, “that isn’t the case“, or “no, that’s not correct“.

Speak clearly so the person you’re addressing cannot misconstrue the situation, and politely ask that you are allowed to finish your thought so that you do not end up interrupting one another, fighting for attention. Once you have calmly made your point, ask them to continue with their thoughts and make sure, in turn, that you then don’t interrupt them!

Steer clear of jargon! It’s easy to confuse people with business speak and some will do it just to look cleverer than their colleagues, if you’re not sure what a term means ask for clarity or if it’s office-related check out our Glossary of Flexible Work Space terms!

Body language at work; Two colleagues having a discussion

Think about your body language

Maintaining a diplomatic posture is important. Use neutral body language and look people squarely in the eye when speaking. Relax those body parts that can tense up during opinionated discussions, like hands, eyebrows and shoulders. Avoid over-gesticulation and waving hands or pointing, as this can be viewed at best as distracting and at worse as aggressive.

As per the above, don’t attempt to be overly friendly. To be diplomatic, you don’t need to smile or laugh every few seconds. This can instead seem facetious, and you will be taken less seriously.

Try to keep a conversational tone of voice and relaxed facial expressions; listen and remain open to ideas.

Deal with the problem, not the person

This will help avoid situations where people take feedback or disagreement personally.

If you’re frustrated, for example, because someone isn’t pulling their weight on a project, raise this with a problem-focused response: “When deadlines are missed, we look unprofessional“ – the focus here is on the missing deadlines – rather than “When you’re lazy and don’t work hard enough, we miss deadlines and look stupid“. The problem in the first instance is the missing deadlines, whereas the second example directly attacks the person. Should the issues continue due to the laziness of one individual, then the problem changes. Finding out why they are missing their deadlines can also be done so in a diplomatic manner. Having a quick chat to get to the root of the issue here, rather than attacking the person themself, always works best, e.g. “How are you finding your workload? Is there anything we can help with? What do we need to do to help you make these deadlines?“ This positive, problem-focused attitude will always result in a more diplomatic conversation.

Accept when you’re wrong

If, when someone puts their point forward, you realise that their point is pretty good or that you have made an error, then please utter those two so often underused words “You’re right“. Do not argue for argument’s sake to ‘win’ or assert authority when not necessary.

Similarly, be careful with emails. When disagreeing with what has been written or stated elsewhere, always acknowledge that the other party has made an assertion and acknowledge any truth in their statement. Bear in mind people will usually make such proclamations based on something they have learned through their experience, so they’re not trying to be wrong, which is why recognising any truth is helpful and shows your understanding and respect.

When you disagree with factual points, have resources to support your comments. This cuts short any back and forth between the parties meaning the discussion moves forward. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, so speaking a correction respectfully and granting people the recognition of their argument will always get you further than smug responses to simply show that you are right.

Diplomacy centres on respectful communication that doesn’t damage relationships. At its core lies the practice of being honest but not brutally honest. When in disagreement, always listen, think and be open. Accept and consider different opinions – don’t simply react emotionally. If you’re feeling offended or angry recognise this and take a step back to compose yourself, think objectively and assess the situation.

So follow these simple tips, and you’ll go from being a hot-headed emotional aggressor, or even worse, the pushover workplace doormat, to becoming the most admirable workplace diplomat.

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