Throughout your career, you'll probably butt heads with your co-workers from time to time. Even if you aren't directly involved in a confrontation with a colleague, you might witness heated arguments between your peers, or work in close proximity to co-workers who fly off the handle too quickly and too often. To keep conflict to a minimum, it's essential that you know how to effectively defuse a toxic situation and handle an angry co-worker before the problem escalates.
Analyze the Situation
Rushing to speak during a confrontation can worsen the problem, so take a few moments to fully analyze the situation before saying anything to your co-worker. Assess what has caused him to feel this way -- whether it be your own actions, a mistake he made or something that was said by another colleague or a customer. Determine whether you're in an area of work that provides enough privacy to discuss the issue, or if you need to request that you and your co-worker take it somewhere else to work it out.
If a disagreement becomes heated and your co-worker begins yelling or behaving in an otherwise intimidating manner, don't intrude on her personal space. Back up and keep an appropriate amount of physical distance between you. Encroaching on her boundaries can be seen as a threatening move from her perspective -- even if this is not your intention -- and could cause her to become even angrier, and possibly even violent. It might be best for one of you to leave the room so she can have time to cool off and reflect on the situation. Once she has calmed down, it will be easier to reach a solution.
The way you address your colleague's anger will depend on what made him angry in the first place. If he's mad because of something you did, acknowledge your action and tell him that you understand why he is angry. Apologizing might be appropriate if you made a mistake or said something that offended or hurt him, but isn't an appropriate if you know for sure you weren't in the wrong. If he's mad about something else at work, such as the action of another coworker or a change in company policy, acknowledge his anger but don't feed it. Don't join him in complaining or ranting about the cause of his anger, because this will only intensify his feelings. Instead, remain calm and let him do the talking. Sometimes, people just need someone who's willing to listen to help them calm down.
Negotiate a Solution
Some arguments simply run their course and end as quickly as they started. Others, however, require the negotiation of a solution to prevent them from becoming recurring problems. For example, if your co-worker is angry because she feels like she regularly picks up the slack for other colleagues, her anger won't stop until everyone else does their fair share around the office. Talk to your colleague about ways you can fix the problem and prevent it from happening again in the future. If she is mad about her workload, advise her to discuss it with management so those in a position of authority can craft a resolution. You don't have to give in to whatever demands your co-worker makes, but you should be open to finding some sort of compromise that suits both your needs.