I recently had an experience at work that ruffled my feathers.
It was just about lunchtime when a new email showed up in my inbox. It was from someone in another department, and it was a complaint about a truly minor problem. What bothered me, though, was this: the email insinuated that my department was at fault, when in reality, the other employee’s own people were responsible.
The message had been forwarded several times, so it probably wasn’t meant to have gotten this far in the first place.
Now, this really wasn’t a big deal. I’ve never even met the sender, and besides, they had been gently set straight by their boss earlier in the email chain.
I still got all hot under the collar. Here are a few of the thoughts that ran through my head:
- “Where does this person get off assuming we screwed up?” “It’s obvious whose fault this is, and it’s an easy fix anyway.”
- “Who does this?”
- “I’m going to email this person and set them straight. No, I’m going to call them. That’s right, I’ll call them. Like, on the phone. Ha! That oughta scare ‘em straight.”
Fortunately, I managed to cool down a bit before applying some good old-fashioned rational thought to the situation.
It’s a tough call: When to argue with someone?
Will the Other Person Listen Anyway?
Let’s say you set out to have a proper argument with someone. Not a shouting match, but a calm discussion where you genuinely try to understand the other party before considering your position relative to theirs.
Even if you’re able to pull this off (no easy feat in the heat of the moment), based on what you know about the other person, what’s their likely response?
Option A: They say, “Huh, I never thought about it like that. You may have a point. Let’s work through this.”
Option B: They stare blankly at you until you’re done talking so they can say what they think.
It’s usually Option B, right? Jerks.
Are You Trying to Solve the Problem or Trying to Be Right?
But what about you and me?
Option A and Option B apply to us, too. Are we genuinely trying to resolve a misunderstanding, or are we full of anger and self-righteousness?
I wasn’t really curious what the sender of the email had to say. I just wanted to give them a piece of my mind.
Not a productive use of my time and energy, and not compassionate behavior.
If either party is likely to choose Option B, it’s not a discussion worth your time.
What’s the Emotional Cost of Prolonging the Situation?
Again, a couple of choices: let things die and quickly forget about the whole thing, or confront the other person and welcome the situation into your life for a while, like an unexpected houseguest knocking on your front door.
Knock, knock, knock. “It’s me, Drama! Can I crash here for a few days?”
You have to decide: Do you want company right now?
For me, emailing or calling the frosty colleague would create 1-3 days of low-level, residual workplace stress (maybe more if things escalated). It was a minor misunderstanding and not worth having on my mind for the rest of the week.
If this situation will cause your stress levels to rise for an afternoon, is it worth it?
What about a day?
So when is it worth it to argue with someone?
- When the topic really matters (usually, it doesn’t)
- When both parties seem willing to listen and learn
- When you’re willing to accept increased stress in your life
In my case, none of these three criteria were met. I’m really glad I didn’t call this person.
Taking time to cool down and apply a little rational thought can save us a lot of aggravation.