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Stay Calm in Difficult Conversations

Difficult conversations are an unavoidable part of life. And usually, what makes those conversations so challenging are all the strong emotions that come with them…

  • The anxiety and fear you feel before confronting your best friend about their drinking problem make it hard to articulate and clearly express your concerns.

  • The anger and defensiveness you feel when your spouse is criticizing you make it difficult to assertively set a boundary, and instead, start attacking and criticizing back.

  • Your co-worker’s shame and disappointment when you deliver some very negative feedback about their performance make it difficult, to be honest about the feedback you need to give.

Difficult conversations would be a lot less difficult if we were calmer and more in control of our emotions.

As a psychologist, a big part of my work is helping other people to have difficult conversations despite those challenging emotions instead of just avoiding them.

If you want to be calmer and more emotionally balanced during difficult conversations, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1. Be strategic about time and place

Too often we end up falling into difficult conversations, which means we’re going into them when we’re not at our best—stressed, tired, distracted, etc.

If you’ve got a difficult conversation you need to have, be thoughtful and strategic about when and where you have that conversation.

2. Validate difficult emotions early.

Difficult emotions are uncomfortable, but they’re not dangerous…

Because those difficult emotions can be painful and uncomfortable, we tend to treat them like problems to be solved or avoided.

In any case, responding to difficult emotions with problem-solving or avoidance tends to only make things more emotionally charged.

On the other hand, if you take a moment to validate your emotions—to remind yourself or your counterpart that it’s okay to feel whatever emotions are present—it’s like a pressure release valve that takes the edge off the emotional intensity everyone’s feeling.

3. Criticize behaviour, not character.

When you make generalizations about people’s character or personality as a whole, it feels like an attack. Which leads them to get defensive and you to get even more frustrated and upset.

So, especially when you need to be critical, remember to focus on a person’s specific behaviours rather than traits, character, or personality. Criticize the action, not the person.

4. Anticipate defensiveness

Everybody gets defensive sometimes—and it’s especially common in difficult conversations, which only intensifies all the difficult emotions present and makes it harder to stay calm and have a productive conversation.

One of the best ways to deal with defensiveness—either your own or theirs—is to proactively anticipate it.

For example: If you need to deliver some negative feedback to a close family member, you might spend 10 minutes ahead of time imagining what topics, in particular, will lead them or you to feel defensive. It will help you be mindful at the moment when defensiveness arises to acknowledge and validate the feelings of defensiveness so that you don’t end up acting defensive.

5. Remind yourself of your values

One of the biggest reasons why it’s hard to stay calm in difficult conversations is that we become reactive.

In particular, we end up reacting to difficult emotions because we want to avoid them…

  • We start angrily criticizing to keep the focus off our insecurities and fears.

  • We become overly accommodating and deferential because we feel anxious about upsetting the other person.

  • We start giving advice and not listening well because we want to avoid the sadness that comes with really hearing someone else’s struggle.

Unfortunately, by reacting to our emotions, we get distracted from what’s important in the conversation—listening empathetically, arriving at an understanding, expressing ourselves clearly, etc.

One of the best ways to avoid being emotionally reactive is to be mindful of your values.

For example, if you take a few minutes before a difficult conversation and reflect on your value of courage and why it’s important to you, you’ll be much more likely to move toward your goal of communicating your wants and needs rather than getting lost in reactions to your fears and insecurities.

6. Update your expectations

A lot of the emotional swings that happen during a difficult conversation are the result of (unreasonable) expectations being violated, which leads to unnecessarily high levels of surprise, anger, disappointment, and the like.

If you seriously reflected on your expectations, you would be much more prepared to handle the unexpected news in a calmer, more balanced way.

7. Clarify your conversation boundaries

We frequently get upset and angry in conversations because we feel disrespected…

  • Our counterpart talks too much and doesn’t let us get a word in.

  • They’re dismissive of our point of view or invalidating.

  • Maybe they’ve been borderline abusive and ended up yelling or threatening us.

In any case, much of our emotional overwhelm in difficult conversations comes from getting trampled on. It’s up to you to establish and enforce boundaries that protect you from the disrespect and abuse that is so upsetting.

So, if you want to feel calmer and more in control during difficult conversations, spend some time beforehand clarifying your boundaries in the conversation…

  • How much rudeness are you willing to tolerate?

  • What will you do if they persist in being rude?

  • Is yelling, okay? If not, what are you prepared to do if your counterpart starts yelling?

It’s hard to stay calm in a difficult conversation when you have no boundaries.

So, before getting into a difficult conversation, take a little time to reflect on your conversation boundaries and make a plan for what you will do if they’re not respected.

8. Don’t weaponize past history

In high-conflict conversations, it can be so tempting to pick some event or example from the past and use it to “prove” your point about your counterpart:

Well, you’re no saint! Remember that time you completely forgot my birthday?

The problem is this leads to an artificial sense of self-righteousness, which then gets in the way of your objectivity, and ultimately, emotional balance.

What’s more, when you weaponize past history like that, you further escalate the conflict and give your counterpart permission to do the same. This leads to an emotionally overwhelming and highly counterproductive spiral of unhealthy criticism and exaggerated emotions.

9. Acknowledge mistakes genuinely

All too often, difficult conversations end up as battles, each person trying their hardest to defeat the other person or “win” the conversation.

If you’re thinking as if a conversation is a battle or competition, your emotions are going to run hot with lots of unfair criticisms, defensiveness, and abuse stoking the emotional flames.

On the other hand, if you can approach the conversation as a shared journey, rather than a competition, you’re much more likely to keep your cool and stay calm. And a great way to do this is by acknowledging mistakes.

When you acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake somehow, it’s incredibly disarming. Your counterpart won’t feel as judged or attacked, which means they’re less likely to escalate themselves.

Genuinely acknowledging a mistake you’ve made is a great way to diffuse defensiveness and competition in the conversation.

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