Man upset by a window

Have you ever had a difficult conversation with someone who is consumed with negative emotions? Furious, and seemingly unable to hear you or think rationally?

There’s no denying it’s hard. But there are things to make the process better for both of you, and more likely that there will be a good outcome. Read on for tips to reduce emotions and make the conversation more productive.

1. Control your own emotions first

I’ve dealt with plenty of angry people. Although I didn’t take their frustrations personally, I still had a visceral response to their emotions. Especially when they were aggressive.

There are lots of ways to calm yourself down, but one technique is to name the feeling you’re experiencing. By labelling our emotions we will start to think with the more rational part of our brain, which helps us make better choices.

Let’s pretend you’re feeling irritated. Say your name, then the feeling (internally, not out loud, because that might appear odd). In this situation, you’d say to yourself, in your head:

 “George, you’re feeling irritated” (or whatever your name is).

“I am irritated” isn’t as helpful for calming yourself, because you’re reinforcing your connection to that emotion. We want to disconnect from the emotion instead and distance ourselves – and talking about yourself in the third person helps. I recently read about using your name in this article and tried it. I thought it was effective, so I recommend you give it a go.

2. Let them vent

Let them express themselves. Find out what is at the bottom of their emotions – it might be fear or shame.

I was once cross with my son, because without medical advice, he’d decided to take himself off his puffer which controls his asthma, and was wheezing. I snapped at him, which I admit was unhelpful and inappropriate. On the outside I appeared annoyed, but the true emotion was fear, because I was scared that he was going to have an asthma attack.

Discovering the underlying emotions gives you valuable information which helps you learn what’s important for the other person and understand them. The more you understand, the more you’re able to help them resolve the issues.

What should you do while they’re venting? Listen. Don’t challenge them when they are highly emotional – they won’t hear you. They can’t hear you hear till they’ve had the opportunity to say what has upset them.

3. Acknowledge their emotions

Let them know that you’ve heard them by acknowledging their emotions. Once people feel understood, they feel validated and start to calm down. You can say things like “It looks as if you’re upset about team meetings not starting on time because it causes delays in meeting deadlines” or “It sounds as if this has been an incredibly emotional and difficult time for you”.

Are you worried about attaching the wrong label to their emotions? To get around this, you can say “Please correct me if I’m wrong – you’re feeling angry because….”

4. Reframe the negative to the positive

Once the emotions have been explored, you can help people become focused on the future, by encouraging a positive tone in the conversation.

For example, imagine someone says “This will never work because the team is so chaotic”. You could respond with “It sounds as if organisation is important to you. Can you think of things that can be done to make that happen?” or “Can you think a time when you worked in a team you thought was organised. What sort of things made it run smoothly?” After they’ve given you more information, you can ask how these things could be implemented in the current situation.

Sometimes people need help reframing negative emotions about colleagues or supervisors. I’ve often heard “I don’t trust him/her”. In response to this, to move the person to think more about solutions, you could say “What would it take for you to trust him/her”? Emphasising positivity increasing the chances of something resolving, because you’re encouraging the other person to think for options for resolution, rather than sticking in the past.

5. Ask clarifying questions and ‘check’ their reality

The aim of this is to encourage them to think more rationally and get things in perspective. We sometimes use ‘always and never’ inappropriately when we feel exasperated. We exaggerate and it takes practice to catch ourselves doing this and change our language.

When we’re dealing with others who are in ‘always and never mode’, try to find out the extent to which the thing that is bothering them is actually happening.

For example:

If they say “Kit never shows me respect”.  You could also ask “what was it like at the very beginning of your relationship, the first time you met? Can you remember a time when you got on?”

6. Mind your tone and your language

Things not to say:

One of the most unhelpful things to say to someone anyone when they’re upset is “calm down”. When I’ve mistakenly said this to my younger child, she’s just wailed louder and louder. It doesn’t work because it’s the opposite of acknowledging emotion.

It’s the same with adults too. “Calm down” doesn’t make them feel validated, and although they might not wail like a little kid, it won’t help them feel calmer or less emotional. And it won’t achieve your aim of resolving the issues.

 “But” can be another unhelpful word, because it undermines people’s positions. For example, if you say “you want the report to measure monthly activity, but Olivia says that’s not possible”. By saying ‘but’ you’re unintentionally erasing the value of what was said before. It’s more helpful to say “You want the report to measure monthly activity, and Olivia says that’s not possible”. It sounds more neutral and factual.

Tone and expression:

Listen to not only what you say, but how you say it. Sometimes, we say the right things, and unintentionally ruin it by saying it in an “off” tone. This goes for expression too. Recently I was frustrated while at my computer, and turned on Zoom. I was quite shocked at the scowl on my face when my video turned on. Try to bring an awareness of any tension in your body to help you come across as you’d like to – that is, calm and attentive.

7. Take a break

If things get too much and become uncontrollable or unproductive; take a break. Grab a cuppa and you (and the other person) can take a moment to calm yourselves. Then when you’re both calm, go back and pick up where you left off. When you’re back together, if they’re still consumed with emotion, they need to be given more opportunity to vent and feel heard, or maybe the matter should be rescheduled for another day (if that’s possible). Hopefully they’re calm, you can move on and work to resolve the issues.

If you’d like me to facilitate a difficult conversation between you and an employee, call me on 0414 722 388 or email me at sam@samlangran.com.au.

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