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Staying Calm in Heated Conversations

23 April 2019

Barbara read HBR's 3 Ways to Stay Calm When Conversations Get Intense by Amy Jen Su and was glad to get reinforcement for two of the four recommendations she provides when she teaches Resolving Conflict.

Tags: barbara read, communication, conflict, empathy, freewriting

In her article, Jen Su emphasizes the importance of noticing when a conversation is about to get heated, breathing to regain perspective, and letting the other person vent as one way to foster empathy in the conversation. When I teach our Resolving Conflict course, I focus on her breathing and venting suggestions, and I add two other techniques: writing and role playing.

When we are in a difficult conversation whether we initiated it or others do, many of us have strong physical reactions. Some that people have told me about and that I have experienced myself are—a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, tears, clinched fists, tight shoulders, stomach cramps, the urge to yell or hit. Taking slow, deep breaths that are not obvious to others can immediately slow down those sensations.

Amy Jen Su recommends Dr. Andrew Weil’s method, “use the 4-7-8 breathing technique for quick results, where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8. My daughter thinks people get the best results from Dr. Maxie Maultsby’s Instant Stress Reducing Maneuver. I get the biggest benefit when I’m under pressure if I say to myself—breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold. The point here is that you need to find a way to help your body calm down before you can possibly engage in productive conflict.

If you know a conversation is going to be tough, prepare for it by freewriting, which is putting on paper everything that pops into your mind about the situation without worrying or about spelling punctuation or grammar. For example, I care about you and value all the things you do to make the organization run well, but I get tired of hearing your negative opinions about every single change we make. I wouldn’t say the last part, but it is important that I write it so I can get it out of my system.

Then I try to figure out a way to say what I’m feeling that is more constructive. During the conversation, I might phrase it this way, “I care about you and value all the things you do to make the organization run well. I understand that you’re worried about the changes we need to make. Is there any way to make you feel better about the decision or how we implement it?”

Another exercise that is helpful is to write out both sides of the conversation—I say, he says. You probably have a hunch what the person will say if you’ve broached the subject more than once, or if not, then write the negative things you are afraid they will say and write your calm, confident responses.

You may not eliminate your fearful emotions and negative body sensations, but you can reduce them by first saying what you’ve written out loud to a trusted friend if the information is not absolutely confidential. You can even talk to your mirror or record yourself on your phone and listen to your tone of voice. Do you sound firm, confident, but without an edge of sarcasm or anger? Keep practicing until you sound the way that will be most persuasive.

When you have the difficult conversation, first allow the other person to vent. Our natural reaction when we hear negative words coming at us is to interrupt the person and defend ourselves. Resist that tendency and keep listening.

When you allow the other person to tell what’s troubling them while you stay calm, you are showing empathy. Jen Su says, “Empathy is not about agreement. Nor is it the same as giving in, being passive, or allowing the other person to mistreat you. Recognize as you make more room for emotion that you are actually helping discharge it.” You may also get information that helps you solve the problem.

If you’ve made a mistake, admit it and say you are sorry. After you have listened for a good while, then you can explain the why of what you did. It might help to give them some context. It might not.

If not, Jen Su says “Communicate respect even in the face of disagreement”… by saying something like this, “In digesting what you have shared, I am finding I just can’t get myself comfortable with that direction. Ultimately, this is coming down to a difference of opinion.” If you can’t sound that sophisticated in the heat of the moment, you could make the simple statement, “I think we will have to agree to disagree.”

What works to help you stay calm in heated discussions?


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