Master High-Stakes Conversations

If you want to improve your capacity to manage heated, emotionally charged conversations, start by mindfully taking care of your own emotional needs. It may sound counterintuitive to focus on yourself when you need to gain alignment with others, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is crucial to be aware of your feelings and thoughts and the impact they have on others as the emotions that you are experiencing — and exhibiting — are transmissible to others. This is often referred to as “emotional contagion.”

When strong emotions arise, there is the event or conversation that triggered the strong emotions (the stimulus) and then there is the response that follows (such as avoidance, anger, sadness, etc.) What dwells between stimulus and response is choice. You choose the way in which you will respond. This brief “window of choice” can be narrow and there are, of course, times when your emotions feel as though they are way ahead of your thinking. The human brain is designed to be reactive in nature and the fight or flight mechanism is very strong, leading you to experience a wide variety of physical sensations geared to prepare you for action. The problem is, this default response cannot tell the difference between a lion chasing you, versus getting involved in a heated political conversation. The same chemicals are being released in your body — which is why it is essential to have a set of self-regulation tools at your disposal.

Below are four effective regulatory skills. Use them when strong emotions, such as anger, frustration or anxiousness begin to take over. With practice, you will build a reserve of emotional resilience that can be called upon when needed. Although each person differs in the amount of resilience they have (some is genetic, and some is built through life experiences), anyone can improve their emotional resilience through focused and sustained effort.

Emotional Self-Regulation Skills

1. Pause.

Avoid responding immediately; pause first. Pausing is an excellent technique for building impulse control.

2. Take deep breaths.

Pay attention to your breathing. Simply focusing on your breath and slowing down your inhaling and exhaling takes you out of your head and into the body. If you stay in your head, you are likely to get emotionally hijacked. Take long, slow, deep breaths, before moving forward with the discussion.

3. Deflect attention.

It is helpful to deflect attention or energy away from yourself and on to someone or something else. This also will buy you some time to calm down. Ask questions, take notes or redirect your gaze from the person you are speaking to, onto an object or place in the room.

4. Delay if needed (reschedule, refresh or reset).

It is not always possible to manage your feelings in the moment. If required, consider delaying the conversation altogether. The delay could be for several minutes, hours or even a few days.

If you are in a stressful business meeting, be sure to plan for frequent breaks. Another way to mitigate stress is to match the work environment to the type of work being done. Taking the problem outside of a stressful environment may contribute to a more creative and mutually amenable outcome. Finally, remember that the way you regulate your emotions and manage your moods will have a significant impact on the quality of your work and ultimately, your relationships.

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