Are you worried about having a difficult conversation?

Never mind the fact that after having been ‘locked up’ with our families for the best part of 3 months, emotions and stress can run high, there will be times in your career too when you know that in order to overcome a situation, you will need to have a tough conversation.

Right now there are so many topics that can provoke arguments within families and between friends – tensions over current racial issues, the Covid-19 pandemic (do we socially distance from our elderly parents or not?), money issues and, of course, politics. When people are stressed already, then conversations can easily escalate to becoming heated discussions very quickly.

So how do you navigate a conversation where you and the other party are either worked up or entrenched in your points of view (or both!).

How to prepare for a difficult conversation?

It is likely that you already prepare for such discussions, but don’t realise it. Sometimes, in thinking about the conversation, we feel our blood pressure rise, steam coming out of our ears and getting angry. Now that is preparation alright! However, if that is all you prepared for, then it is likely that this is what you’ll get.

So, here’s a tip. Why not visualise a positive outcome (much like athletes do before a race), visualise a calm conversation, you using a calm tone of voice, because this will actually calm you down. Next, you want to be in a positive frame of mind. You can achieve this by thinking about things to be grateful for. Maybe remind yourself to be happy to have the other person in your life, or lucky to be even having this conversation, or remind yourself of all the blessings you have.  You’ll find that this will take the sting out of the importance of this debate.

Set yourself a goal.

If you can make the other person feel good, without flattering them, then you are more likely to succeed. You can achieve this by ‘active listening’ – you listen to what they have to say, you then summarise their point of view and you describe how it makes them feel. You’re aiming for them to say ‘that is exactly right!’ Make sure, however, not to use the word ‘but’! As it will negate everything you have just stated…

Once you have done this, they will feel really understood and will feel a level of bonding with you – whether a bit or a lot, either way it is to your advantage.

This ought to be your goal. Once they feel heard (not hurt!) you’ll have a much calmer conversation, as people raise their voices, because they do not feel heard. Just think of a time when you felt acknowledged during a disagreement. Chances are that you do not remember what happened after that, I’ll tell you, the argument probably did not continue!

You might think that by acknowledging how the other person is upset, they will just dig in more. You’ll be surprised it is actually the opposite. The moment you para-phrase their point of view and how it makes them feel, they will be surprised and they will be curious to hear what you are going to say next. They will feel that you are in this together.

So, how would you start the conversation?

Once you have acknowledged their point of view and feelings, acknowledge what they are probably thinking about you right now. So, if you believe they think you’re being a prat, then say it: ‘you probably think I’m a prat right now’. This takes a bit of guts, however it is mightily effective and once you have done it, you will want to use that tactic every time. It just like a short cut to a positive outcome. It is linked with how our brains are wired. Every time you identify and call out a negative emotion, that negative emotion diminishes or even disappears, hence defusing the tension. Then, finally, you can start to talk.

So, how to deal with a normal conversation that turns heated?

If someone raises their voice (they feel they aren’t heard), acknowledge by saying ‘I’m being a prat’ or something stronger if you wish! It doesn’t really matter whether you think their point of view is accurate or fair, you just want to ‘inoculate’ their negative perception of the situation. If they have become angry, then making them feel heard will keep you calm and in control so that you don’t become angry too.

Be careful!

Explaining, or worse still, ‘mansplaining’ stuff will be a short cut to fast derailment. If you explain stuff when things get heated it will feel to the other person that you’re telling them that they do not understand (and are stupid).

The next step

Once the other person feels heard, you can ask them ‘so, how can we move forward?’. Usually this will make them take a much wider view and actually their answer is not as important as the process you have just forced them to go through. The ‘how’ question makes them assess all the negative consequences. And, you are maintaining your position by moving the problems back to the other person, without being seen as argumentative or combative.

The power of apologising

An apology ought to precede something negative. The apology acts as a warning that bad news is following, so it gives the person time to prepare for it. It is astounding what people can handle with a little bit of forewarning, rather than just being presented with the facts.

What to do if the other person becomes irate?

Surprisingly, if you use a calm, supportive tone of voice, this will usually calm them down (it is a chemical reaction in the brain). It is amazing how your tone of voice has an impact on the other person’s thinking even before you finish your sentence.

In case of an impasse or stalemate

Don’t forget that the last impression is a lasting impression. Should you be struggling to get the final word in, chances are that the last word is a cheap shot. However, if your last word is something positive then it is more likely for the other person to think about what you said and come back to propose a solution.

The bottom line is, do not get sucked into an argument before having thought about how you are going to handle it. The one who is prepared is more likely to get what they want. And if all fails, you can always resume to throwing things at each other!