Master the art of controlling difficult conversations

How do you react when you’re in a tense conversation? It can be difficult not to work up a volcano of negative emotions. After all, disagreements can be perceived as a threat.
Workplace Communications experts, Amy Gallo (author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work), Susan David (author of Emotional Agility) and Dr Ron Friedman (founder ignite80 and author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace), suggest a few easy tips you can practice to keep calm and create an atmosphere that allows for a productive discussion:

Breathe
Keep centered and take your attention away from physical panic signals by focusing on your breathing. Notice yourself inhaling and exhaling. Try counting each exhale or inhale until you begin to feel calm.

Anchor yourself
Dissipating negative emotions can be difficult when you’re sitting still. Physically grounding yourself in your environment can help you regain mental focus from an intensely emotional state. Some ways to do this include activating the thinking part of your brain by standing up and taking a walk around if possible, placing both feet firmly on the floor and trying to notice what this feels like, crossing your fingers or stretching.

Remember the basics
Come up with a mantra that reminds you of the basic truths about the situation at hand – example – “This isn’t about me,” “Go to neutral,” “This will pass,” “We’ll find a way forward.”

Acknowledge and label your feelings
When you feel emotional the attention your mind gives your thoughts and feelings crowds out your ability to examine them. By labeling these feelings you create some mental distance between you and the feelings making it easier for you to let them go. Do this by mentally analysing what is going on in your mind and separating the thoughts from the emotions – example: He just doesn’t care about how heavy my work schedule is and it’s making me frustrated = my thoughts are that my coworker doesn’t care about my heavy work schedule and my current feeling is frustration.

Take a tactful break
When things are getting heated find a tactful way to take a break to create some space for you to process your emotions and diffuse their intensity. You don’t want your counterpart to think you’re trying to escape, so think of a good neutral reason – example: “Sorry to interrupt, but I’d love to grab a quick cup of coffee before we continue. Can I get you something?” “I just need to get a glass of water. Can I get you one as well?”

Use relationship-building statements (PEARLS)

  • Partnership: “I’m sure we can sort this out together,” “I really want us to work together on this.”
  • Empathy: “I can sense your enthusiasm about this,” “I can appreciate why you’re concerned.”
  • Acknowledgement: “It is obvious that you have put a lot of work into this,” “The investment you’ve made in this shows.”
  • Respect: “I’ve always admired your creativity,” “It is absolutely clear that you know a lot about this.”
  • Legitimation: “This would be difficult for anyone,” “Anyone would be anxious about something like this.”
  • Support: “How can I help you with this,” “I really want to see you successful with this.”

In summary, conflict with anyone can be tough but it is counterproductive to barrel through the discussion when you’re worked up. While it is vital to pay attention to your counterpart’s words, control the conversation by refusing to feed their negative emotions with your own.

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