Dealing with difficult conversations

We all have to spend time dealing with difficult conversations. Conflict is a natural part of all relationships at home and at work. I’ve written before about the sources of difference and provided ideas on how to deal with “difficult” people and situations. And there are short videos on two particular models – Parent Adult Child (PAC)  and the drama triangle  – available. So here are some further tips on dealing with difficult conversations and there are further links at the end.

What is “difficult”? Navigate difference and reframe 

I put “difficult” in quotes as if we label people or situations as difficult then our brains will filter information and only heed information that supports this hypothesis. People usually act from a positive intent and they are usually not being difficult – just different.

So you should explore sources of difference – whether due to gender, age, seniority, personality, cognitive style or background – as I do in my book on Better Business Relationships – and try to bridge the gap. You can also try reframing  the negative behaviour (the girl is a bully) to more positive behaviour (the girl is passionate about getting things done).

Let things cool down

Let me share a story. I remember a situation at one of my first jobs at a very large accountancy practice. I was summoned to the office of a very senior partner. I was somewhat nervous as he was a very senior person and known to be extremely clever but intolerant. When I arrived the partner was in a rage – his eyes were bulging and he was shouting and banging on the desk. He ranted about the reason for his anger – but directed that anger at me. I refused to stand there and take such an onslaught. I didn’t even enter his office. I simply said “I will come back to talk to you later”. And simply left. When I popped in later he was calmer and able to talk about what he wanted in a rational way.

When emotions are running high, it is said that the conflict is “hot”. And the best advice is to allow people to cool down before tackling the reason for the conflict. However, conflict can be too “cold” if the person has shut down their emotions altogether. This may be a sign of suppressed anger and passive aggression (see the post on assertiveness . You need an optimal level of warmth – where people can be their authentic selves and express their views while their emotions are regulated.

Use emotional regulation and emotional intelligence (EQ)

The person in my story was not very good at emotional regulation – I talk about this in a video on resilience.

We learn to regulate our emotions when we are children – by observing our care givers and how they react to situations. But some people don’t get the right support and fail to regulate their emotions in adulthood. So you see what appears to be a childish tantrum being acted out by a grown person – and that can be very frightening – especially if that person is in a position of power.

Some researchers suggest that men in particular are likely to mask anxiety and fear with anger. So sometimes the emotions you see played out are covering some underlying emotion.

Emotional regulation is part of emotional intelligence.  People with high EQ are really self-aware and recognise what they are feeling and are able to manage their emotions well. They are also good at recognising emotions in others (i.e. empathy) and in managing the emotions of others.

Be aware of your triggers We are upset by different things. Some people feel being excluded or overlooked or not respected far more deeply than others. If you feel yourself reacting strongly to a situation, consider whether the reason is because you are particularly sensitive to a trigger. Neuroscientist Eisenberger  showed that people can feel social pain as much as physical pain. The issue is, often we don’t know what makes people feel acute social pain. What are the facts of the situation – and how am I reacting to these facts?

So become more self-aware of your own emotions – and practice techniques for soothing yourself and managing your emotions more effectively. Be aware of what things trigger negative and strong reactions in yourself – so that you know why you might suddenly feel threatened or frustrated or angry. This is not the fault of the other person – you are reacting to something they have said quite innocently and they may be completely unaware of its negative impact on you.

So when you are in a difficult conversation, observe whether the other person is in control of their emotions and perhaps remove yourself from the situation until they are calmer and more in control.

Don’t interrupt and listen carefully

In a conflict situation, it is best to listen first. Two reasons. The first is that you are unlikely to make progress until people feel that they have had a chance to share their views and be heard. They need to be validated.

The second reason is that by listening you will build your understanding of the other person – you will increase your empathy. Third, if you listen carefully you may find that the issue is not as you first anticipated and that may make it easier to find a solution.

When someone feels very strongly about something or is upset or angry you must let them speak. They need to be heard. If you interrupt it may increase their discomfort or anger. So let them finish speaking.

You should deploy good active listening skills. This might mean asking questions for further information, giving non-verbal cues for them to continue or repeating back or summarising what they have said. This shows you are paying attention. It validates their emotions.

Articulate your understanding and needs

No-one has the ability to mind read. Even if you have really good empathy you should still ask questions so that you really understand the other person’s perspective.

You also need to be able to articulate what it is that you want. There are many techniques to help you improve your assertiveness.

I remember another occasion when a senior lawyer was almost incandescent with rage. He was firmly of the view about a particular course of action. I acknowledged his view but explained that in my professional opinion I held a different view. This enraged the person further. I remained calm and said “I understand you believe X. I respect your view. I believe Y and I cannot change my professional view. However, you are my client and if you want me to do X then I will do so. But I will not change my view”. I repeated this phrase a few times (the broken record approach) and eventually things calmed down and we agreed to differ in opinion. I’m happy to report that to this day I remain a close personal friend of this lawyer!

Clarify and keep things simple

Keep your language simple and clear so that there is no room for misinterpretation. Furthermore, rather than make assumptions – check back that you have understood the situation properly.

Focus on the problem, not the people Sometimes conflict arises because things get personal. The focus is on the people involved rather than the situation or the problem. Finding a common goal through agreeing together the underlying issue is a way for people to work together. In some situations, people suggest you “chunk up” until you find an area where you agree before trying to solve an issue at a lower level. Remain neutral – don’t take sides.

Seek a Win:Win Some people must feel that they have won a situation. Others, adopting a more collaborative style will try to find a solution where both parties feel they have won. This is particularly important in situations where the culture places so much value on “saving face”.

Avoid triangulation However tempting it is to vent to someone else about the difficulty please don’t do this. First, you are creating a triangulation – drawing someone else into the disagreement and effectively urging them to take your side. Many conflict spirals can be avoided if people refuse to be drawn into other people’s arguments. The other issue is that you can start to form a drama triangle – with a persecutor, a victim and a rescuer.

As I mentioned at the outset, take a look at the short videos on Parent-Adult-Child (PAC) and the drama triangle (Victim – Persecutor – Rescuer) to understand the dynamics of two particular dysfunctional triangulations.

Related posts on dealing with difficult people

Reframing as part of resilience (video)   May 2020

Better business relationships – the building blocks  (video) June 2020

Adapting to different personalities – dogs, cats and bears (video)  April 2020

Managing up, boundaries and broken relationships  Feb 2019

Assertiveness skills  March 2017

Leaders guide to negotiation September 2016

Bottlenecks, bulldozers and caught in the cross-fire  August 2016

Seven tips for conflict management and negotiation May 2016

Transactional Analysis – Parent, Adult, Child (PAC) model  Jan 2015

What is emotional intelligence (EQ)?  Jan 2014

Nine ideas for better conflict management  July 2013

What is NLP?  July 2012

Conversational riffs book – creating meaning out of conflict  April 2012

How do I deal with difficult partners?  July 2007