How to Stay Present in Difficult Conversations When People Get Emotional
By Dr. Marcia Reynolds MCC
(MMC guest Master Coach & blogger)
Before you hold what you believe will be a difficult conversation, it is important to set your emotional intention. What do you want to feel throughout the conversation? What do you want the other person to feel? You have to set the emotional tone from the beginning of the conversation and then hold it throughout to get the results you want.
Yet even good intentions can be thwarted by the emotions of others. Disagreements make people emotional. This shouldn’t stop you from achieving the results you know are possible. In fact, letting people vent not only allows them to release their feelings (which usually dissipate after they are expressed), but you can find what they really want or what is causing them to feel the way they do if you listen to the words they share while they are venting.
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When you think about the person and the situation you want to address, do strong emotions arise? Will you be able to release these emotions if they surface during the conversation? Can you accept that the person responds to challenges differently than you do, that his or her style and speed for processing, learning, and trying out new behaviors are different from yours?
Before engaging in the conversation, envision what could happen, including the worst case scenario. Choose how you want to respond. A clear vision acts as a dress rehearsal that will help you get through the real thing.
You also have to allow them to fully tell their story before you start asking them to look for solutions. If you push for resolution too quickly, they will not believe in your intention. They will fortify their walls and the conversation will go nowhere.
Manage how you respond to the other person’s discomfort
Your own brain has automatic defense mechanisms that are naturally on alert at all times. When the conversation begins to feel risky, messy, or emotionally unstable, you need to breathe and recall your emotional intention for the conversation.
Vincent Van Gogh said, “Let’s not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives, and we obey them without realizing it.” You need to notice when your body tenses up or your breathing shortens so you can release the tension and return to being present.
Your commitment to helping them move toward an effective solution, not just to make things better for yourself, must be evident from the beginning to the end. You’ve seen how quickly people get defensive when they don’t like what they hear. I’m sure you, too, have engaged in a verbal battle after receiving criticism, or you mentally checked out the moment someone offered to give you feedback.
Remember your emotional intention based on how you want them to feel. Remember your goal of service. Remember they are doing their best with what they know right now. Don’t get entangled in their reactions. Stay present so you can help them see that knowing more or doing something else would be in their best interest.
Keep your impatience in check
Finally, the demon you will most have to battle is your own impatience. You will need to be comfortable with letting the process unfold.
When you think you know exactly what is wrong with the other person’s thinking, your best approach is to patiently ask them questions that will help them discover the gaps in their logic for themselves. If you slip and tell him what is wrong with his thinking and what he should do next, his brain will shut down. No one likes being made to feel wrong or stupid. You can read more on how to change people’s mind with an inquiry process in The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs.
You also have to be patient with silence. Silence is often an indication that what you said or asked actually poked through his wall of resistance, causing him to stop and think about his thinking. The best thing you can do is to be patient and allow the person’s brain to work.
Be curious and care
Be fascinated by the human in front of you. Don’t let him frustrate you with his resistance. Don’t let him fool you with a false face of ennui. And definitely, don’t resort to threatening or bribing him. Stay calm and intentional throughout the conversation to move toward the results you want to achieve.
@Dr. Marcia Reynolds 2015
Dr. Marcia Reynolds MCC, president of Covisioning LLC, is fascinated by the brain, especially what triggers enthusiasm and innovation. This fascination has led her down many roads in her desire to stay on top of the shifts in employee engagement and leadership development. On this journey, she wove together three areas of expertise: organizational change, coaching and emotional intelligence. She is able to draw on these areas as she works with her latest passion—changing the conversations leaders have at work. She feels the most effective leaders help people think more broadly for themselves. When leaders have powerful conversations that change people’s minds from the inside out, the workplace comes alive with an eagerness to discover what is possible.