Unfortunately we all face a potentially volatile conversation at some point in our lives. I recall a few times earlier in my career when I lost sleep worrying about how a conversation would play out. One time I even had myself convinced that I had lost all credibility at work and my career was over … that from one dreaded conversation!
As humans, we always bring bias to a conversation, so the potential for misunderstanding will never completely vanish regardless of how well we prepare what we say. And, there will always be people who are not satisfied or angry with outcomes. We can’t create a foolproof solution. What we can do is diffuse or at least mitigate them. Developing the skills to navigate tough conversations is an often overlooked part of our professional training and it’s something I wish I had done earlier in my career.
When someone verbally pounces, it’s tempting (and I know this from personal experience) to try and make a point and push back just as hard. That rarely, if ever, worked in my favor. As I grew professionally, became more self-aware and learned how to listen, potentially explosive conversations became much easier to navigate and eventually diffuse. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about navigating tough conversations.
Zip it. Yes, it’s common to have a knee-jerk emotional reaction when we learn someone is angry. We want to defend our position. But it’s important stop talking and just listen to the other person. What are they actually angry about – the outcome, the product, or the way you handled the communications? If you truly listen, you may find the root cause is relatively minor and the anger is a result of lack of understanding of process or big picture. You may also learn that there was extreme tension in the meeting immediately prior and the person is dealing with the residual effects of that. Just listen and get as much clarity as possible as to why the person is angry. Clarity results in better solutions.
Toss it. (The big chip on your shoulder.) Let’s face it; we are all human. When we aren’t feeling our best (stressed, bored at work, unhappy with our life direction) we tend to be very skeptical, unforgiving and critical of others. When we bring that mindset to a conversation our word choice and even body language reflects it. Yet, when we’re crushing it at work and filling our off-hours with fun and worthy pursuits, life is full, life is good and we tend to give even the most challenging personalities the benefit of the doubt. Recognize and be aware of where you are in your own life as you respond to others. If you do, you’ll find that more often than not, you can reach the middle much more easily.
Accept it. One of the best ways to disarm a potentially volatile conversation is to acknowledge the other person’s reaction to the situation and his/her emotions about it. When we lead with “I know you’re dissatisfied/unhappy/angry with me… let’s talk so I can learn more and then together we can figure out how to fix it …” it is much harder for the other person to continue ranting and raving. Doing this does not mean you are admitting the other person is right. You are only acknowledging the other party’s feelings and reaction. It is a much more positive and solid place to start a conversation.
Reframe it. It’s rare that two people cannot find any common ground. Generally in a work situation and often in personal situations you’re both invested in the same positive outcome, you’re just reaching the destination from a different approach. So reframe the conversation, and ask solution-oriented questions that force you to figure out how to do something proactive rather than dwell on why something happened.
Following this approach feels awkward and difficult at first. I used to think if I didn’t “stand my ground” or advocate for myself people would view me as less credible, ineffective, maybe not tough enough to succeed. Later, I realized that by listening more, being aware of my own bias and forging strong connections I became a more skilled negotiator, better relationship manager, more successful salesperson and a more compassionate friend and colleague.
Here’s hoping all your summer fireworks take place in conjunction with backyard barbecues only. Happy Fourth!