Have you ever had someone shout at you during a difficult conversation? Or cry? Or go quiet? You might find the following strategy useful for getting you both out of the emotion and back to the communicating.
Emotions make difficult conversations, well, more difficult. Whilst I believe people are entitled to their own reactions (albeit while acknowledging we all need to manage our reactions) it’s hard when the person we’re talking to gets angry, upset, defensive, or exhibits any of the range of negative emotions out there. This can make the conversation go in all sorts of unpredictable directions, and compel us to say things we don’t necessarily mean as a result of becoming overly hard or nice in response. Keeping your balance when the other person reacts emotionally can be hard, so here’s a handy sentence structure that can help move them on from the emotion they feel:
‘When you … I feel …
And I would like to feel …’
Let’s try it with three different emotional reactions.
‘When you raise your voice, I feel
intimidated / like we can’t talk, and
I would like to be able to have a
constructive conversation with you.
When you cry I feel like I can’t give
you feedback and I would like to be
able to help you improve.
When you go quiet I feel like you
don’t want to talk to me and I would
like to feel that we could talk this
The idea of expressing such sentiments out loud can feel quite scary, but I’ve seen it work many times in moving conversations on in a more positive direction. Once you’ve said your sentence, hold the silence – they might need some time to process what you’ve said. Hopefully it will help them move on from their emotion, and understand how it’s not helping either of you move forward.
It’s really important to say how you would like to feel. This lets the person know what you’re looking for, and then gives them a choice as to whether they want to help bring that about or not. If you know that the person you’re going to speak to is likely to react in a certain way, you can plan what you want to say in that sentence in advance. If you’re on the spot and need to structure the sentence quickly – which I appreciate can be hard – try buying yourself some time with a phrase such as ‘I just need a moment to think.’
It won’t necessarily work every time, but in my experience it generally works well. If you’re ever in a situation where yours or others’ safety may be at risk, the most important thing to do is make yourself and those around you safe.
Sonia Gill is founder of the consultancy Heads Up, which specialises in making schools outstanding, and author of the #1 ranked books Successful Difficult Conversations in School and Journey to Outstanding; further tips on this topic can be had by registering at the Heads Up TV video channel and newsletter (ukheadsup.com/headsuptv)