No matter how emollient you think you are, sooner or later in this job you are going to have to deal with conflict. Either you’re handling conflicting desires (say the lab workers’ desire to just get things done vs the PIs’ desire to follow proper safety protocol), or you’ll be on the receiving end of someone’s long nurtured frustrations or you’ll be getting an earful from the boss or… whatever.
You need to deal with this. It doesn’t matter how unjustified this is, the absolute worst thing you can do is to be drawn into it, starting to get angry yourself (let’s be real: how many arguments like that have you been in that have ever produced a good result?).
Your job is to defuse this situation as best as possible. The best way to do this is a little book on inter-personal negotiations called The Godfather:
The abuse itself bothered him not at all. Hagen had learned the art of negotiation from the Don himself. “Never get angry,” the Don had instructed. “Never make a threat. Reason with people.” The word “reason” sounded so much better in Italian, rajunah, to rejoin. The art of this was to ignore all insults, all threats; to turn the other cheek. Hagen had seen the Don sit at a negotiating table for eight hours, swallowing insults, trying to persuade a notorious and megalomaniac strong-arm man to mend his ways…
It’s actually an easier trick than it sounds. If someone is ranting, let him rant. Unless you are under time pressure, just let him keep talking, nodding when necessary, until he wears himself out. Sooner or later he will have to come to an end – out of exhaustion if nothing else – and then you can calmly make your point. Repeat until the situation burns itself out.
If things are really going on, take out a notebook and start writing in it. It doesn’t actually matter what you are writing in it – you can copy out verse from memory. Just simply writing things down in the other person’s presence tends to diffuse the situation.
The rule to keep in mind is: whoever loses their temper, loses.
Obvious response: Don Corleone could afford to argue like this because, if things got out of hand, he had the option of having the other guy whacked. Well, you might not have the option of having someone whacked, but you do have the option of taking things to a higher level. If someone is truly being abusive and unreasonable, you do not have to take it. Bring things to a close and just say, “I think we may best refer this to the Professor”.
However, you’ll be amazed how rarely that is necessary.