Use This Shortcut to Defuse a Tense Conversation

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There's a lot to love about remote work — yes, even nearly a year into COVID-19 lockdowns. The flexibility, the lack of commute, the ability to get paid to live in your sweats, all of it sounds heavenly to your pre-pandemic self. What we do miss, however, is human company. Endless Zoom meetings and chat windows just aren't the same.


When that lack of interpersonal contact boils over, or when it's hard to read someone through a screen, an ordinary interaction can easily turn into frustration and even tension. Psychologists at Canada's University of Waterloo have a peer-reviewed trick that may help get you back on track. In a new study, researchers found that the practice of illeism is a great intervention for interpersonal conflict.

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What that means in plain English is referring to yourself and your feelings in the third person, rather than the first. By saying "She feels misunderstood" or "He feels angry," rather than using "I," you give yourself the distance to approach conflict more analytically. Doing so may give you a better appreciation of alternative viewpoints or emotional headspaces.


Previous studies have shown that different people think about stress differently, both their own and other people's. What seems obvious to you may not be intuitive to others, but being able to communicate across that gap should save us all a lot of trouble. If you're good at dealing with workplace conflict, that actually puts you ahead of the vast majority of managers. Being constantly available to your employer creates its own problems, but this study's simple rhetorical trick may help you avoid this one.