Management Exchange: Three Ways to Keep It Cool in Conversations

Editor’s Note: This article was authored by Michael Hoffman, CSP, who will be speaking at Winter Management Conference 2017 in Puerto Rico, February 5-9.

HoffmanHow did this happen? We were having such a productive conversation and I felt it happening, but I didn’t see it fast enough, or I didn’t know how to stop it.

I called to congratulate her on facing a very tough situation. She picked up the phone and I could tell she was stressed. (I’m glad I called.) Instead of telling her right away how proud I was of her, I asked her a few questions about the situation. I thought I would get a few specific examples to enhance my compliment.

She didn’t take it that way. She immediately got defensive and wanted to know why I was getting involved in the mess she was facing.

“I’m actually calling to tell you what a good job you were doing…”

“Then why didn’t you say that?!”

“I was going to but…”

“Listen I have enough going on here and I don’t need you probing me for information for whatever reason you feel…”

How did I get here? I was calling to compliment her – emotional escalation.

Have you ever been driving down the street where you were going to have a conversation with somebody that you feared wasn’t going to go so well? We face challenging conversations all the time in our personal and business interactions. It’s inevitable because life is lived … with people. But how we handle those challenging conversations, and how we keep them from escalating, is what sets us apart as a person of influence.

Let’s go back to the car. You’re in your car heading to a conversation you know might be challenging. What do you do in the car? If you’re like most of us, you practice. You’ll have the conversation at least eight times from every angle. Sometimes you work yourself into a frenzy.

It’s a natural defense mechanism. Your brain is preparing to defend itself. The problem is, in the car, it only has one-side of the conversation – yours. It’s totally making up the other side. And the challenge with that is it’s either not positive, or it’s not accurate.

That’s an amazing observation and you need to keep it in mind: The person you are about to talk to is doing the same thing. Emotions usually get charged because of this defense mechanism, and it’s hard enough dealing with the truth of the matter without dealing with issues, assumptions and ideas that are made up and may quite possibly not be positive, accurate or are just plain wrong.

Here are three quick tips on how to keep you in the driver’s seat from misinterpreting the emotions you’re facing.

1. Focus on Intent

This is where you need to keep a rein on your brain. It loves to interpret the intent of the person’s message.

Your eyes get colored by the situation and by the relationship of the person you’re talking with. If you love the person, you’ll have a tendency to see things in a positive light. However, if you are defensive, you’ll have a tendency to interpret everything in a negative light.

I have a very large family, and one of our favorite stories is of an epic fight that broke out between two of my sisters who had shared a room and weren’t getting along. One morning they passed each other on the way to the bathroom, grumpy from an argument the night before, and bumped into each other.

“Good morning.”

The other whipped around, “What did you say?!”

“Who are YOU yelling at?” And thus began the fight of the century!

It was epic, and, unfortunately, we do it all the time.

They had everything already colored in a negative light just by their current relationship.

When in a challenging interaction, try to keep a tight rein on how you’re seeing the information you’re receiving. Make the conscious extra effort, give them the benefit of the doubt and choose to see everything in a positive light, or, at the very least, a neutral light until proven otherwise.

Don’t think this is easy; it’s not, especially if you feel threatened. Sometimes it takes a Herculean effort to stay in the neutral position. But the payoffs are huge when it comes to dealing with a person who may have the side of the story you need to come up with solutions, next steps or just staying away from the quagmire of emotional escalation.

Bonus tip: Don’t assume anything. If there are any doubts about “what they meant by that,” check it out. You may be totally off.

2. Use Concurrence Questions

Another great way to keep it cool in conversations is to use concurrence questions. Concurrence questions are quick, close-ended questions that take a moment to confirm information or check for understanding in the conversation. It gives them an opportunity to bring clarity.

“So what you’re saying is …?”

“Did you mean …?”

“Am I to understand that you want to …?”

“Am I on the right track?”

When you give them a chance to confirm what you think they meant, or to ensure you’re on the right track in your conversation, you’ll have a tendency to stay with the truth and avoid misinterpretation.

3. Ask the Magic Question

Another great way to keep it cool in a potentially emotional conversation is to ask the magic question, “What else?” – at least three times. Remember the car experience we mentioned above? Where we have a tendency to mentally prepare ourselves for a potential conversation by going over it several times before we actually have it? Know that the other person in your conversation most likely will be doing that as well, so take that extra time to get them to give you their side of the story or situation before moving to a solution.

Asking “What else?” three times does several important things:

It keeps you from jumping to conclusions too soon. There is nothing magic about three, but it sure does remind you to slow down and get all the facts, figures, issues and concerns.

It shows that you really are listening to their side. Nothing deflates the emotion like being listened to. One of my favorite sayings is “If you are for me, I don’t have to be for me!” Show you are for them by taking the time to seek their side.

Bonus Tip: Mind the Written Word

Keep in mind the written word is even more challenging; tone, inflection, and pacing can all change the way your written communication comes across. As an experiment, try reading one of your emails in three different moods: happy, silly and angry. You’ll get what I mean. Take the time to reread your emails and texts, sans non-verbal cues, before you send them off. Rewrite if necessary. It may keep your words from being misinterpreted.

We’re living our lives in the moment and rarely do we think about how we are coming across. Most of the time we just say what’s on our minds and think we are very clear. As a person of influence, you know to pay attention to the intent of their message as well as their words. Use concurrence questions to keep the clarity of what they meant. Ask “what else?” three times to let them know you are interested in their side and you are for them. And, lastly, when you have any doubt when texting or emailing, just pick up the phone and call!

As long as we get things done with others, we’ll have to deal with emotions. But the people who approach interactions on purpose will be the true people of influence.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman is a certified speaking professional (CSP) who has been helping companies build sales, radically shift their culture, develop their leaders and engage employees in delivering true customer service for more than 20 years.