How to have Crucial Conversations in Emotionally-Charged Situations

Still stinging from an argument with a loved one that degraded into yelling and finger pointing? Been avoiding a good friend who did something many weeks ago that upset you? Is a co-worker’s behavior so toxic that it’s making you want to quit?

Sound familiar? Are you suffering in silence in situations like these? Or complaining behind their backs to other people but avoiding a direct confrontation with the individuals?

Then it’s time to have that dreaded but crucial conversation to stop the madness once and for all.

If it feels impossible to do … especially if your emotions are on high alert because you’re going through a big transition in your relationships, career, or life … you’re not alone. The book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High” lays out some very useful concepts and frameworks for having an effective conversation in a difficult, emotionally-charged situation.

It’s important to know that in these types of situations with high stakes and differing opinions, things can get very emotional very quickly for everyone involved. And when emotions take over, your body instantly reacts to prepare you for a fight or flight situation: Your adrenal glands immediately pump adrenalin into your bloodstream. Your brain diverts blood to areas of your body needed for survival (hitting and running), leaving less blood for the rational part of your brain. As the book authors say, “A brain that is drunk on adrenalin is almost incapable of rational thought.” No wonder we tend to mess up (or avoid) these types of conversations!

Another critical point is that other people don’t make you mad. YOU make you mad. It’s our interpretations (stories) and judgments in conflict situations that trigger our emotions and reactions. That’s why two people can view a situation very differently and have completely different interpretations and therefore completely different reactions to what happened.

For example, Jane, a divorced mother, sends her 25 year-old son Jason an email invitation to a large dinner party next month. He doesn’t respond, even after she sends him two follow-up emails over the next few days, so she tries to call him and leaves him a terse voice message for him to respond to her invitation.

  • Jane fumes and says to herself: “I can’t believe that Jason did it to me again! I try to include him in our activities, and he never responds. He should have responded to my email right away. He is so disrespectful to me! He would never treat his father that way!””
  • Jason is puzzled by her terse voice message and thinks: “Wow, I wonder why Mom sounds so upset at me? I saw her invitation but I’m not sure if I’m free that night. I’m so busy at work right now, I don’t have time to respond to personal emails. The party’s not till next month anyway. I was going to let her know next week. Why does she need a response now?”

Clearly, these are two very different interpretations of the situation, resulting in two very different reactions.

The good news is that we all have the power to create a different story that will affect our emotions differently. If we don’t do that, then our stories will continue to affect and control us, making us hostage to our emotions … making it impossible to have a productive resolution.

So how should we manage our emotions and have effective conversations in these difficult situations? Here are 5 tips distilled from the Crucial Conversations book that are useful in both personal and business situations:

1. Start with the Heart

Even if you don’t respect some things this person has done, at least have some respect for his/her basic humanity. Look for what you have in common. Recognize that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and different values and expectations.

Ask yourself – What do you want from the relationship? To rebuild a friendship? To connect with each other at least once a week? To establish an effective partnership? To have mutual respect for each other? Or just to co-exist peacefully?

2. Set a Mutual Purpose

Demonstrate respect and trustworthiness by stating the purpose of the conversation … from your heart. For example:

“John, I’d like to talk with you and explore how we can work together more cooperatively. It’s important to me that you and I put our past issues behind us and build an effective partnership for the sake of our business. Does that sound like a reasonable goal?”

If you can’t think of a mutual purpose, at least commit to him/her that you will jointly develop a mutually agreeable objective for your conversation. Say, “It seems like we’re both trying to force our views on each other … and it’s not working. I commit to stay in this dialogue until we find a solution that works for both of us.” Then dig deeper to learn the underlying reason for their point of view. Listen to understand.

3. Create Safety

Safety is a critical pre-requisite for having a productive dialogue. Meet in a neutral place like a conference room, a quiet restaurant, or outdoors. Enter the conversation with a sincere intention to honor different points of view and different interpretations of situations.

If there’s a possibility that you had done something that hurt or offended them or created a misunderstanding, start by offering an apology and ask them if there is anything else you need to clean up before you begin (you only know to apologize for what you observe or are aware of, there may be more). Show sincerity in your authentic intention to repair the relationship.

4. Engage in Dialogue

A dialogue is a free flow of meaning between two or more people. Create a “pool of shared meaning” by enabling all participants to contribute their opinions and concerns so that the best decisions can be made.

After you’ve set a foundation of safety, here are 10 steps you can follow:

  1. Share your observations about the situation (facts only, not opinions or judgments).
  2. Acknowledge how your actions may have contributed to the misunderstanding or conflict.
  3. Then share YOUR interpretation of the situation (your story) in a way that acknowledges that other interpretations are possible.
  4. To prevent others from getting defensive, talk in a tentative manner, e.g. “Perhaps you were unaware that …”, or “I’m wondering if ….”
  5. Ask the other participant(s) to share THEIR interpretations of the situation.
  6. Be curious. Listen with an open mind and open heart so that you can truly understand their points of view.
  7. Calmly acknowledge their feelings and opinions, and reflect back what they said so that they feel heard. For example,“What I hear you saying is that you felt disrespected when I said I didn’t think your team was on track to make the deadline.”
  8. Contribute any other relevant observations or facts to build the “pool of shared meaning.”
  9. Develop possible solutions that would be acceptable to all parties, and decide on the best solution.
  10. Come to a specific agreement about who is going to do what by when. Then agree when you’ll follow up to confirm that all parties have kept their commitments.

5. Notice the Emotions

Detach yourself periodically from the content of the conversation to observe the dynamics of the participants. Are you (or others) starting to withdraw into silence? Are you (or others) beginning to get angry or frustrated? Before your own emotions take over, learn to catch yourself by silently asking yourself: “What’s going on in this conversation? Do we need to restore safety so that we can shift back into dialogue mode? What would cause the reaction I am observing? What does the other person value in this moment?”

Ask yourself “What emotions am I feeling, and what story am I telling myself that is triggering these emotions? What evidence do I have to support this story?” Typical stories are “It’s not my fault,” or “It’s all YOUR fault,” or “There’s nothing I can do about this.” These types of stories serve to get us off the hook, but they are counterproductive because they prevent resolution.

To restore a loss of safety, restate the mutual purpose of the conversation or call a time out, with a mutually agreed time to reconvene.

I hope you find these tips helpful when you’re in an emotionally charged situation. Remember that these are learned skills. Continuous practice will turn these into new habits. You can start by applying these tips on a small conflict first to gain the confidence needed to apply them to a more crucial situation.

After all, wouldn’t the world be a much better place if everyone used these tools in crucial conversations?

Keiko Hsu
Wings for Women

2 Responses to How to have Crucial Conversations in Emotionally-Charged Situations

  1. Keiko Hsu January 2, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    Thanks for your comments, Maria. Yes, it can be scary to have a crucial conversation, but it can take your relationship to a whole new level.

  2. Maria Busch January 2, 2015 at 1:02 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing these valuable tips from Crucial Conversations. I have experienced the negative impact that can come from others making assumptions, shutting down, acting on “their stories” of what they think is going on with others. Actually, truth be told, we all want to be accepted, understood, listened to and valued. The first step is knowing what we really, really, really want. We can’t work on others until we start first with ourselves. Practice using the STATE skills in any and every situation until it becomes a natural way to respond and interact with others. Follow Keiko’s suggestion, start with facts, tell why that is important to you and ASK the other party their thoughts, do that with care and be willing to have leave it open for testing. Will it be scary? yes, but do it anyway.
    Don’t let the fact you have to learn a new skill get in the way, it is the most valuable skill you will ever learn. After a bit, it will seem natural. Thanks Keiko, great article!

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