One of the "soft skills" I wish that we all learned in primary school is how to check in with each other on how we're feeling. It doesn't seem to be common knowledge in this culture we're living in. That's a shame, because it could help us to avoid a lot of stress and conflict.
Here's an example. I was at work, speaking with a woman to has a tendency towards sarcasm, and she made a comment which I wasn't sure how to take. I didn't know whether or not she was being sarcastic. I slept on it overnight, and when I woke up I still felt irked by what she might be implicating. So I asked her to speak with me in my office.
I said "Remember the other day when you said [insert ambiguous phrase here]?" She remembered. "Were you being sarcastic when you said that? Because I wasn't sure how to take it." She claimed that she was not being sarcastic. OK, I'm her boss, so maybe she had been sarcastic and wasn't owning it, but I still felt better for having spoken with her. I got my bad feelings off my chest without attacking her for them, and she had a chance to either clear up the misunderstanding, or gracefully take an out while still getting the message that I wasn't happy with what she said. It was a win-win situation, and when we were all done there were no more ugly feelings kicking around underfoot.
Whenever possible, I train my staff to check in with each other. Sometimes when I have to facilitate a conflict that involves a long history of people getting on each others' nerves, I simply have them both agree to call a time-out when things are starting to escalate. Either one of them can say "Hold on a minute. I feel like you're getting upset with me. What's going on?" or "Woah, you just raised your voice. Do you want to take a break and come back and speak with me when you've calmed down?" The point is not to be condescending, but to be genuinely concerned and helpful. If it doesn't work, they can get me involved.
Just the other day I discovered that sparks had flown between Employee X and Employee Y. X was in Y's office, doing something that was a part of her job. Y felt that X was not respecting Y's personal boundaries. Y therefore felt justified in speaking to X with an offensive attitude. X hadn't had any intention of causing offence, therefore she felt unjustly attacked, and snapped back. Y, who felt that X had it coming, didn't back down. It ended with bad feelings on both sides.
When the exchange was reported to me, I assured Y that, while I could see her side of the story, I knew X well enough to vouch for the fact that she would not deliberately cross Y's boundaries. I explained to Y that X is one of those people who doesn't naturally have a good sense of boundaries, but that once they are explicitly explained to her, she'll respect them. I said to Y that X would probably put her foot in it again, because she's done that regularly around the office, but if Y could just approach her gently next time, and check in before attacking, I was sure things could be resolved peacefully. Y agreed to give it a try. I assured Y that if X was uncooperative I would personally sort things out.
We could all benefit from taking a breather before going on the attack. We could all benefit from checking in with others before acting on the assumption that they meant to push our buttons. It's as much of a benefit in one's personal life as it is at work. I don't manage to do it all the time, but when I fail, there's always that other technique: offering an apology and asking for a do-over.
Can you imagine if we all learned these things in primary school? I didn't pick up the techniques until I was a student at a psychotherapy school a few years ago. It's so blindingly obvious once someone shows you how to do it, but until then, we struggle and get hurt. Spread the word!