Six Tips for Redirecting Highly Charged Conversations

Almost everyone, at some point, has found him or herself in a conversation that takes an unfortunate adversarial turn. Whether one of the conversation participants is stressed and has “a short fuse,” or begins to forcefully protect a belief that seems to have been threatened, the conversation takes on a heated, and decidedly uncomfortable and unproductive, tone.

In facilitated meetings, different opinions and conflicting beliefs are more easily navigated, thanks to meeting ground rules and skillful facilitation. But what about your average workday conversations that have neither specific agendas nor third-party facilitators? When someone “goes off” into an attack or diatribe, it can seem frightening, embarrassing, and unpredictable.

In some cases, the aggressor is simply having a “short-fuse” moment, but in other cases he or she might be purposely trying to shut down conversation by using hostile -communication tactics such as attacking, name-calling, blaming, or using forceful body language, tone and wording.

Being caught off-guard by a conversation that becomes super-heated often produces one of three outcomes: both parties react to the “hot buttons” and become agitated and confrontational (or just unskillful); or one party simply backs down and shuts up, which can lead to resentment and jeopardized relationships; or a hybrid of both.

There are several tactics that can be pulled, as needed, from your “interpersonal-communication skills toolbox,” so that a heated dialogue can be self-facilitated or cooled off to allow for a more productive, less harmful interaction.

And remember: these tactics are for heated and conflict-prone conversations, not hostile situations which threaten bodily harm (in which cases, fleeing to safety is probably the best tactic!). For other heated conversations, though, the following tactics offer pathways to more productive dialogue:

1.  Stay aware and centered.

A primary challenge when someone seems to be bowling you over with a caustic reaction (or even a verbal/energetic attack) is to stay fully present and centered, so that you can make good choices regarding how to respond. Staying aware and centered is like an internal conversation, where we say to ourselves, “Gosh, this seems to be an overreaction, and I don’t want to go there,” and then plant our feet and take a breath and go into “deep listening” mode. The opposite of staying aware and centered? Letting the force of the other person’s heated communication send us into “fight or flight,” where we tend to shut down and flee, or shoot off an unskillful reaction that only fuels the fire.

2.  Respond, don’t react.

Always a good interpersonal rule, choosing to respond rather than react is to remember that we can be conscious, civil, gracious, and calm in our communications even when someone else chooses quite differently. We might choose to say nothing at all for a moment, preferring instead to listen rather than to interrupt with a “yeah, but…” or other type of reaction. In responding, we choose to listen, to inquire, and to resist our own desire to defend a position, belief, or comment. We also release our need to be right, realizing that it is sometimes the only route to a more productive dialogue (or at least one that doesn’t escalate into a screaming match).

3.  Inquire and validate.

Another potential interpersonal tactic in the face of someone’s heated reaction is to inquire and validate the intentions, beliefs, concerns, etc. that are “behind” the heated words. For example, one inquiry might be, “It sounds like we’ve really hit on something that’s very important to you. What’s most important to you about this?” The person may or may not respond, but the inquiry breaks the escalation in the “conversational thermostat” and offers an opportunity for dialogue. A potential follow-up question, if needed, is, “What’s most concerning to you about this?” Once the concerns or “prized positions” behind the defensive (or aggressive) conversation are revealed, you can validate the person’s right to think, feel, or hold those concerns or priorities. And then you can reorient the conversation back to the primary intentions or priorities.

4.  State your intention.

Once the pattern of verbal escalation has been broken (by inquiry and validation, for example), you can begin to reorient the conversation to either a relatively pleasant close (even if temporarily) or shift the focus to the more important priorities of the conversation. One way to reorient is to state your positive intention for the conversation or interaction, e.g. “My intention for the conversation isn’t for us to end up in a screaming match, but to calmly and respectfully exchange ideas so that we can make a decision on this project.” Stating your intention — a positive one — can also serve as one way to break the pattern of escalation to allow for a slight “cooling off.”

5.  Redirect or reschedule.

If you’re unable to redirect the conversation back to a more productive course, it may be best to state your intention for a positive, productive conversation and suggest that “this conversation seems to be getting too heated for us to do that, so maybe we should allow for some cooling off and revisit the issue later.” It may well be that this tactic, too, acts as a pattern-breaker, or it might simply allow the postponing of the conversation.

6.  State your appreciation for the interaction.

Regardless which outcome occurs for any particular conversation, it’s good form — and skillful communication — to express your gratitude and appreciation for the person’s time, honesty, willingness to redirect, etc. Doing so allows an open door for continued dialogue.

This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.