How to Defuse Workplace Tigers (communication tips to help you during high-stakes meetings)

You’re sitting in a meeting when two influential colleagues hijack the conversation and turn it into a high stakes game of chicken with your project.

You’re not quite sure how you let it happen, but sheer terror emerges as you recognize overconfident people are loudly and speedily sharing semi-logical information. Yes, semi-logical: sh*t logic wrapped in a delicious layer of good logic.

If you let them continue, the phony information will spread like wildfire. If you interrupt, you’ll be a casualty of involuntary ego-cide, career death by egotistical recklessness. You don’t stop a tiger fight by sending Bambi in as a moderator.

Your heart races. Your palms sweat. You’re not prepared to take on these tigers. You’re not a superhero. You’re a down-to-earth person who values quality and kindness. This is your project. What are you going to do? How are you going to defuse the situation without looking like tasty tiger bait?

Lesson One: Merely witnessing an ego-trip can throw you off balance. It can make you feel demoralized, unappreciated, confused, angry, fearful, and weak. BUT YOU CAN RECOVER IN THE MOMENT. 

When this happens, and it will, take DEEP breaths, kick back into your seat, and cross your arms up behind your head like you’re the boss.

Okay, I know it sounds silly, but you can’t underestimate the profound impact these moves have on your psyche. 

Studies indicate diaphragmatic breathing reduces stress hormones while power poses (such as crossing your arms behind your head) increase testosterone, stabilizing your flight or fight response and giving you confidence.

You need confidence, a steady heartbeat, and an open mind to turn these tigers into kittens. So take a deep breath now. And another. And another.

Feeling better? 🙂 Good.

For an added boost of confidence, I like to think about an SMBC comic by Zach Weinersmith where he plots a persons willingness to opine on a topic against their actual knowledge. For your enjoyment, here it is.


With permission from Zach Weinersmith of SMBC Comics

It’s a funny image to remember when ignorant VIP opine on topics they don’t know enough about. Keep it in your back pocket. Now take another deep breath. 

So what do you want?

You want…

  • To defuse the situation
  • To correct information without collateral self-damage 

Now think, does speaking loudly and speedily make a decision rational? Does it make it any easier to understand?

Probably not. Hence, it’s not in your best interest to let confidence transform you from Bambi into a tiger, unless it’s this one… 


The truth is these colleagues need someone smart and buoyant–like you–to swoop down and gently nudge them over the edge of Mount Stupid into the valley of enlightenment. But how?

Lesson Two: “Help me understand” is a kinder and more modest way of saying, “No, you irrational, impolite bullies, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

With this approach, your colleagues backpedal to retrace their steps. The sheer act of stepping back with the intent to educate forces a person to confirm their own logic. It presents an opportunity to reflect while at the same time confirming validity. If a gap exists, you (and others) will spot it, and seek remedy.

If the logic is sound, you avert damaging influential relationships. (Hey, you can be wrong, too.)

That said, sometimes, even when the logic adds up, something still feels fuzzy.

Lesson Three:  In conversation, we often experience a self-imposed sense of urgency.  Saying, “Let me reflect on that” buys precious time.

Don’t let the fallacy of urgency back you into a corner. If your gut sends a signal, explore it! In other words, let curiosity, reflection and research drive the decision-making process, not a false deadline. If others are in the room, you may want to say, “Let’s reflect and reconvene.”  Others will nod willingly if they’re in the same boat. Some will spread misinformation anyway. Don’t fret. You can’t control everyone, but you can ensure a thoughtful call to action by fostering an environment of reflection.

Lesson Four: It’s easy to marginalize people. It’s hard to empathize, particularly when you are threatened. But where there is conflict, there is room for pause. 

Here’s the thing. What you value may not differ greatly from your cohort. People often share overlapping values and still end up in situations like this one. How you process and prioritize those values, on the other hand, is where conflicts arise. In the moment, even best friends who share the same values can completely miss the bullseye. Here’s an example.

John values politeness and health. He also values caring and kindness. He values Jane’s friendship. He wants to be there for Jane. So here he is sitting at Jane’s meeting, on time. 

Unfortunately, he’s been stuck in back-to-back meetings all day due to an urgent client request. He missed lunch and drank a big bottle of water to fend off hunger. He’s jittery and hungry. It’s hard to think straight when nature calls.

What he should do is apologize, excuse himself, relieve himself, and return to Jane’s meeting. He should tell Jane he didn’t have a chance to eat. But he doesn’t want to leave her meeting. He doesn’t want to be seen as impolite. He doesn’t want to offend her. He cares about her.

He’s completely distracted by the urge to urinate, so he speeds up the conversation, and engages in bursts of dialogue. When Jane’s meeting ends, he’s thrilled! The bathroom break afterwards feels like a reward for making it through the day. He rushes out of the office to grab a sandwich.

Jane hangs her head. She is disappointed with the confusing mandates that arose in the meeting, and the dismissive attitude she received from her close friend John.

As you can see, there are a slew of factors guiding how we prioritize. Some situations demand immediate action–like the call of nature or a phone call you receive from a client who says he’ll pull the plug on your business if you don’t provide a solution in an hour. Others don’t. Sometimes we prioritize our values well. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we don’t have the fuel to think straight.

I don’t know a single person who has not experienced a similar situation. So remember, empathy matters. We all make mistakes. We’re all imperfect beings.  

Lesson Five: Addressing observations leads to self-awareness. 

When you draw attention to your observations, you create an opportunity to address them.  By saying, “I’m experiencing a sense of urgency. Let’s step back. What am I missing?” you create an opportunity for others to self-correct or share. You provide an opportunity to confirm observations.

Either the urgency is real (e.g. the client called  and demanded immediacy) or the urgency is false (e.g. “oh, sorry, buddy, mind if we break for a few minutes so I can run to the little boys room and grab a sandwich? I was slammed earlier by that client thing.”). You may even realize you’re slower today than usual… You were up all night with a sick child.

Where there is awareness, there is realization. Where there is realization, there is transformation.

I hope this helps. Good luck! You got this!

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