How to Take Control of a Difficult Conversation
I'm sure it's happened to you. You walk into a room, answer the phone, or open an email, and you're ambushed by someone who's angry about a real or perceived grievance. It could be a client, a co-worker, a boss, or even a family member.
What do you do?
For most of us, that moment triggers a deep-rooted fight-or-flight instinct. If you're like me--someone who can't easily handle open confrontation--your tendency might be to hang up the phone or get up and walk away. That response, I can tell you, doesn't work great. In my case it led to years of misunderstanding with my sister.
The other instinct--to lash back and defend yourself with equal anger, may be even worse. "What I've done then is to hand the keys of the conversation to the person most likely to run it into a ditch," explains Geoffrey Tumlin, a communications consultant and author of "Stop Talking, Start Communicating." In most conversations, basic human instinct is to mimic or match the other person's communication style and tenor, he says. "So what happens when someone comes at us at an agitation level of 8, 9, or 10--in the danger zone? These forces encourage us to match with our own 8, 9, or 10. We could inflict serious, sometimes fatal, damage to the underlying relationship."
Don't give in to the natural urge to match the other person's aggression with defensiveness or anger of your own, he advises. Here's what to do instead:
1. Use the "neutralizing two-step."
That's Tumlin's term for a bit of conversational aikido that will quickly deflect the other person's hostility. The first step is to apologize for the fact that the other person feels this way. "I'm sorry that this upset you." "I'm sorry we had this misunderstanding." My personal favorite is: "I apologize--I must not have made myself clear." Whatever--the point is that you're sorry about the trouble and that you never intended for the other person to feel unhappy or slighted.
The second step is to engage the other person in finding a solution. "Let's figure out what went wrong and how to set it right." At that point, with everyone slightly calmer, you can dig into the problem and find an explanation. Perhaps someone sent you an email that you never received, or there was a miscommunication of some sort. Once you've defused at least part of the anger, figuring out what to do next should be relatively straightforward.
2. Apologize--but only if appropriate.
Should you offer a real apology and accept blame? Maybe. Apologize only if you've actually done something wrong (or someone who reports to you has), Tumlin says. But this will only work the first or second time a mistake is made. "You can't be a serial apologizer," he says.
You should also apologize if, despite your better judgment, you've said or done something that you wish to take back. If so, do it quickly. "There's a brief period of amnesty after you say or do something stupid," Tumlin says. "At some point that will go away, but people are generally willing to accept timely apologies."
Don't fake apologize, he adds. "We should never apologize for something we didn't do. Let's say the error was all on someone else. I don't recommend apologizing and saying it was your fault."
3. Don't put up with bullying.
The above tactics are appropriate when someone who's normally pleasant is upset over something they think you've done, Tumlin says. They don't make sense with someone who repeatedly berates you.
"If it's a pattern, we're going to have the lunch money conversation: The dude is taking my lunch money and I need my lunch money." These are the only situations where confrontation is a more effective tactic, he says.
In that case, have a one-on-one conversation with this person and call him or her on the behavior. "In the meeting, when you said I was stupid, that hurt my feelings and it's not acceptable. Don't ever do it again," Tumlin says.
The bully may respond with bluster or may just let it go. Either way, he or she will be on notice that the next time the line is crossed, there will be consequences. For instance you may start a confrontation right there in the meeting.
Most of the time, Tumlin notes, you're likely not dealing with a bully, and you should do what you can to stop the conflict from boiling over and doing permanent harm. "Relationships should only end when something is actually wrong and unfixable," he says. "Words should never end relationships--but they do all the time."
Like this post? Want to read more from Minda? Sign up here and you'll never miss her weekly columns.
MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, The Geek Gap
Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.