Navigating Difficult Conversations
Whether it’s a professional or personal conversation, one of this year’s biggest challenges has been navigating difficult conversations. For some of us living in homes with people who have opposing viewpoints, it’s become part of daily life.
Unlike ordinary conversations, difficult conversations are much more likely to hijack our internal sense of peace and create feelings of panic or anger. While these intense emotions take hold, we fall into the trap of building a wall when we are hoping to build a bridge. We may even find that our conversation has become unproductive or explosive in just a few minutes.
So what can we do to ensure our sense of calm doesn’t get hijacked and we stay in bridge building mode?
Think through what matters most to you in the conversation. Set intentions and achievable goals. Some important goals could be to keep the conversation pleasant, find common ground, listen and acknowledge the other person’s viewpoint. These are all things you can control. Setting intentions or goals that are outside of your control will likely lead to panic if the conversation doesn’t go well. Acknowledging how your body responds to fear or anger can help you stay calm. Perhaps when things get challenging your heart races, back stiffens, you find breathing more difficult and so on. Prepare physically by doing some slow deep breathing. Keep your eyes open and imagine the breath is going into your belly and back. Shake your hands vigorously to release excess tension.
Emotion in the Conversation
You must stay in your own emotional state without taking on the other person’s. If the other person becomes angry or emotional, stay neutral. If you need to defuse the situation, say less and listen more. The more neutral you are, the more likely your friend or colleague will come down from being carried away by emotion.
Know When to End
This one can be especially tricky if you don’t know the person well. You may be surprised to find they are triggered easily, and the conversation has gone down a rabbit hole quick. Try ending it by asking a question. “Perhaps, we should take a break and reconvene tomorrow?” This will buy you time to rethink your strategy based on their response.
What to avoid
Do not use condescending tones or language. That is a surefire way to increase tension and put your partner on the defense. Stay on topic and do not let your partner change the subject. If they resist staying on topic you may need to end the conversation. You’ll also need to avoid letting your ego take over. The desire to “win” or control the outcome may be human but not productive.
With all conversations where risk is involved, knowing how to handle yourself when a conversation gets heated is key. Mental and physical preparation helps ground you in your intentions, increases your control over your physiological responses, and sets a foundation for staying engaged in a way that aligns with your intentions. Once you are deep in the conversation, stay on topic, listen and keep breathing. Remember, you cannot control another person’s responses, only your own.
Lisa Wentz 7/29/20