Manage emotionally-charged situations better

The previous post explored what’s going on in our brains when we are upset and why difficult conversations can backfire when one or both of the people feel upset. This post outlines tips and strategies for what to do when things are emotionally charged.

1. Develop self awareness: Know that when we are upset and reactive, we do not have access to our complex, logical processing to solve problems or engage in productive conversations. Notice what happens to you physiologically when you feel upset. What changes about your thought patterns? Journal about your observations.

2. Adopt self-calming strategies: Learn about mindfulness. Do research to help you find grounding exercises that work for you, such as deep breathing, mediation, gratitude practice, going for a walk, self-validation statements, or self-reflection in a journal. The purpose is to find ways to calm ourselves so we can engage the problem-solving parts of our brains as opposed to ramping up the reactive parts of our brains. These practices will be individual to us and may take some trial and error. This article has many ideas as a starting point.

3. Notice the other person: Pay attention to what happens with the people in your life when they are upset. Do you see signs of them winding up (red in the face, talking loudly) or shutting down (going quiet, walking out). Ask yourself if this is the right time and place to be having the conversation you are trying to have. Remember: telling someone to “calm down” has never in the history of time calmed someone down. Practice making EAR statements to help calm upset people:

4. Don’t try to have ‘the conversation’ when people are upset: Learn and practice respectful strategies to exit a conversation when you or the other person (or both) are upset. Use neutral wording that avoids accusations, such as:

  • I realize I’m feeling upset right now. This is important to me and I want us to talk about it but I need to wait until later when I’m feeling more calm.
  • This conversation is important but I think it will go better if we both take a break and come back to it later.

Things not to say if you are hoping for a productive conversation later (emphasis on blame):

  • You make me so angry! I can’t talk to you right now! Leave me alone!
  • You are so inappropriate and disrespectful. Don’t talk to me until you can be civil!

5. Plan to talk later when both people are calm: When we feel activated and reactive, we might think we need to have the conversation now. Other people might want to avoid the conversation at all costs. Both of those approaches escalate conflict. One solution is to agree on a time to reconnect to see if you are ready to have a conversation in a problem-solving way. That means when you use strategy #4 to respectfully end a conversation, propose a time or place when you could talk later, such as:

  • Could we connect at 3:00 pm? I have some time then and I’ll do my best to be in a better frame of mind so we can sort this out together.
  • Can I call you in the morning to talk this through? I’ll be able to do a better job of that after I’ve slept on it. How about 9:00 am?

The Upshot: Master the Strategic Pause

When we feel triggered or activated and we go into reactive mode, we might escalate (fight), walk out (flight) or shut down (freeze). The part of our brain that is dominant at that point is allocating resources to ensure our physical survival. That part of the brain is good at reacting quickly but not good at complex logical processing or productive communication.

When we are in flight, flight or freeze mode, we can escalate conflict even when we didn’t mean to. To gain access to the parts of our brains that are able to think more logically and solve problems or resolve conflicts, both we and the other person must be calm.

That means learning and practicing skills to respectfully end a conversation if someone is in reactive mode, engaging in self-calming strategies, and learning how to make effective EAR statements to calm upset people. It also means arranging to talk another time after both people have to have time to reflect and become calm but not waiting so long that the conflict is permitted to linger or fester.

Shifting how we engage with conflict takes know-how, effort and practice. Talk to us to explore how our training, facilitation, coaching, mediation or our other services might help to improve how your organization engages with conflict.

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