Original Post by Lisa Neuberger:
It can be hard to remain calm during difficult conversations – at least it can be for me. I tend to become anxious when the topic is important, and it’s something I’m working on. But I’m not alone. A Google search on “How to calm down during a difficult conversation” returned 390,000,000 hits in less than a second. This just shows how many of us struggle with this issue. Solomeh Diaz (n.d.) noted that most people do not want to engage in difficult conversations, and that we tend to sabotage them by either clamming up or becoming aggressive. Neither approach is helpful in moving a conversation forward, and certainly neither option is even available in the workplace.
It’s especially important for leaders to self-manage their emotions because emotions are contagious. If the manager is tense, that will be communicated to the other person nonverbally as well as verbally.
Marissa Levin (2018) had some great strategies for keeping calm during stressful conversations, and many of these mirrored the strategies laid out in the video about Having Difficult Conversations. These are: 1.) To have a goal in mind for the conversation. The article suggests that printing out these goals will help you to focus on the outcome of the conversation rather than your own ego. 2.) Think about the conversation as a team effort and remember the other person is someone who is not the enemy. 3.) Listen to the other person. 4.) Be aware of your own triggers. 5.) Ask clarifying questions. 6.) Keep in mind that you are only gathering information, not making an irreversible decision. There’s no reason to get emotional. (Dalhousie University n.d.)
Dalhousie University. n.d. “Having Difficult Conversations: Resisting Change.” Dalhousie University HR. YouTube. Accessed October 10, 2021. Video, 7:44. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvI8L87UntU.
Diaz, Solomeh. n.d. “Warning: Crucial Conversations Are Hard. (Here’s how to make them better.)” Vitalsmarts Australia/New Zealand. YouTube. Accessed October 10, 2021. Video, 6:26. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y9fwHvjOJs
Levin, Marissa. 2018. “Follow These 6 Steps to Take the Stress Out of Difficult Conversations and Get Your Desired Outcome.” August 8, 2018. https://www.inc.com/marissa-levin/6-essential-steps-for-remaining-calm-focused-during-difficult-conversations.html
Good point that people who get emotional during a difficult conversation may be doing so partly because they care so much about the work. Holding that perspective brings room for empathy and motivation to be patient on my end so that matters do not worsen. I struggle a lot with staying calm during difficult conversations, as well. So, focusing on the fact that the person is simply having trouble de-escalating his or her emotions instead of concentrating on the content of words would even create space for sympathy.
Viewing my decision to be overly emotional as self-sabotage is a smart way to perceive the outcome of not taking a pause when issues get heated. Having a goal is a great way to increase motivation to stay calm in the most difficult moments. I would appreciate a leader who shared the goal with me so that we can start off the conversation by establishing that we are together aiming for the same thing. Then, we could even reference the goal throughout the conversation. Further, determining that I am not making an irreversible decision would help me to not feel as though I have to fix everything all at once. It would direct my focus towards gathering information if I am not so concentrated on what I need to say to immediately create the final outcome that I want.
Reply by Lisa Neuberger:
Thanks for your comments, Mary.
This week’s topic is such a challenge for me — and also an opportunity to grow. Conversations take an enormous amount of energy and difficult conversations sap all my reserves. But as you note, there are ways for us all to help each other make difficult conversations easier. I found there are many strategies out there for staying calm and focused on the outcome of the conservation. Truthfully, for me, the challenge doesn’t come so much from the conversation itself, but in convincing myself to have the conversation in the first place. As a leader, avoiding tough talks will only create disfunction on my team, so I’m hoping learning these strategies will help me to more more comfortable in confronting uncomfortable topics.