Breathe in. Bite your tongue. Try not to let your annoyance show (uncross those arms!), and try to stay calm. When a discussion starts to sour, whatever the cause, the resulting tension usually just makes it harder to communicate. Sometimes, all we can focus on is how wrong or difficult or irritating that other person is being. Grumble.
Whether you easily shy away from conflict, clam up when confronted, or are one to get carried away with your temper, it would suck to let old habits leave you victim to an overwhelming conversation or someone’s ill-chosen words. Don’t let that happen to you.
When you can’t just walk away from a worsening situation, use patience and other thoughtful tactics to defuse tension. You can then redirect a negative conversation before anyone even realizes what you’re so cleverly doing. Manipulating the conversation (in a good way!) will help you keep genuinely positive relationships with your team, clients, and vendors. Then, you can stroll away from tense situations, feeling confident that everything will still work out alright.
How to start the change
Preparation is the major key to success. Before it all hits the fan, Amy Gallo of Harvard Business Review suggests that you have various responses readily available. When an uncomfortable conversation does arise, you can facilitate it in the right way, avoiding damage to important relationships or disarming threats to your credibility.
The best tactics for changing tracks when the situation has soured (and you can’t just blast Pharrell’s “Happy” at everyone) can be simplified into the seven Rs:
The gist is straightforward; most tactics are centered around distracting from or defusing the immediate emotion of the situation (anger, indignance, offense) to get back to what actually needs to be communicated by the conversation.
Say that again, I dare you
One of the most frequent tactics you use will likely be request — give the other person a chance to restate what they just said (or reframe what you said yourself), if it rubbed you the wrong way or came out not as intended. From HBR’s “7 Things to Say When a Conversation turns Negative:”
“‘Surely there’s another way to say that’ or ‘Did you mean what I think I heard?’ are useful ways to encourage a person to reconsider and alter what was said.”
If you made a faux pas of your own, it can be as simple as saying, “Let me rephrase that,” and choosing your words more carefully the second time. Do not dare them to repeat whatever they just said. (If they dare you, it might a good time to rapidly backpedal and check yourself before you wreck yourself. Just a suggestion.)
Another solution, says Gallo, is to reorganize:
“Change the priority of the issues. Direct the conversation away from personal concerns by focusing on process. For example, one comeback might be, ‘We seem to agree on the what but are having some difficulty with the how.’ In this way, you cut the problem in half. The focus is now on only one aspect of what might otherwise appear to be an intractable impasse.”
Water under the bridge
One more R we’d add? Redirect, which is also known as “the bridge.” Deflect a question or opinion by connecting it to a different idea: “But what’s important to remember is that…,” or “But what it really comes down to is….” Direct attention to another matter at hand or a more positive part of what you’re talking about.
Often, there may not be common ground to stand on, but you can still disagree agreeably. A little old-fashioned etiquette goes a long way here. Flattery (“I know you’re really skilled at [blank], so I’d be interested in learning more about your reasoning on this”) and acknowledgment (“I can understand why you’re feeling this way”) are two ways to politely key change a negative conversation.
If there’s no easy thing to say, and saying the hard thing doesn’t feel right (for example, it may embarrass someone), an interruption may be all that’s needed. Make a pit stop when you sense a conversation is going the wrong way. A short break may be just the distraction you need to change the subject, and it’s less awkward than changing the conversation midstream (“Let’s grab a cup of coffee before we further this discussion” or “I need to check on something — let’s pick this up in a second”).
If you can, withhold your initial response and instead, listen for what people care about. Read between the lines of what they’re literally saying for what they actually mean, which can reveal their underlying interests, desires, insecurities, and more. See what you can pick up on and how that might enlighten your reaction to the rest of the conversation — or change what you originally wanted to say.
As they say, prevention is the best cure. If you know you’ll need to have a difficult conversation soon, mentally prepare yourself for potential conflict and worst-case scenarios. The best way to go about this? Take the other person’s perspective. As Amy Gallo recommends, try to get a sense of what they might be thinking. “They have a rationale for the way they’ve been behaving, so what might that reason be?” Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself what you’d do in their situation, knowing what they’re trying to achieve. Identify common ground, and use that to cooperatively find a solution.
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