Handling Heated Conversations

“I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here is right or wrong, I am not a judge or a jury, but I can tell you this, he won’t sell anybody out to buy his future. And that my friend is called integrity.” When the blind Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, stood up to defend young Charlie, in the movie “Scent of a woman”, he argued with the dean of the university defending Charlie’s position, using tactics to attack the dean’s credibility and ruling and to ignite the audience into sympathizing with Charlie’s position until they all finally sided with Charlie and the dean had to retreat from his decision, in one of the most memorable speeches and hard conversations scenes in movies.

Nothing is heavier on the heart than having to conduct a difficult conversation that you know for a fact will require emotional drainage and brainpower from your side. It could be debating your performance review with your boss and you are afraid that they won’t see eye to eye with you on your achievements, or letting your employees know that you are downsizing and that you have to let some of them go, knowing that it’s not about their performance rather its purely a financial decision, knowing it will affect them and their families wellbeing, or even telling your spouse that you are not happy with their level commitment in the relationship, but you fear the confrontation, as maybe you would hear something that you don’t want to hear. 

In simple terms, it’s any topic you find it hard to talk about, knowing that you will be vulnerable or that your self-esteem will be on the line, and maybe you will feel awkward about talking about it, or you feel deeply about the matter or care a lot about the person you are going to discuss it with.

Before we start, let us agree on some ground rules that will set the stage for this discussion

  1. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Using Stephen Covey’s words from “The Seven Habits of the Highly Effective People.” It is human nature that when we feel heard, we relax, trust and open up, and become willing to talk and understand the other side’s point of view.
  2. Acknowledge the other person’s feelings. When someone shares how they feel with you (happiness, anger, sadness, joy, etc.), you have no right to dismiss their feelings or tell them their feelings are wrong. Even if you disagree, acknowledge their feelings, then try to understand the reasons for why they feel that way.
  3. Don’t assume you know their intentions. Whenever you are stating your opinion, always talk about how YOU feel about the situation and your point of view, and never try to assume you know how the other person feels. You can say that you feel angry or sad or hurt, but don’t say that you feel that the other person is mean or that they don’t love you anymore, or does not treat you fairly like your other colleagues, as any such assumption will only activate the defense mechanism from the person you are talking to. (i.e. don’t say “I feel you don’t love me, or why were you not there for me when I needed you” rather say “I felt alone or hurt or sad or that I needed help”).

The New York Times bestseller “Difficult Conversations” talks about the art of difficult conversations and how we should handle it, for all aspects, business or personal. Highly recommended read, and it was my inspiration to write this post.

Any conversation of such nature falls into one of three types and we need to always realize where are we in those types, to be able to assess our feelings and handle the conversation.

  1. The what-happened conversation.  Both sides believe that they hold the true version of the story and what happened. Even more, we always believe we know the truth, the intentions of the other side, and who is guilty. In reality, most arguments are about our perception of what happened, our interpretations, values, and what is important to us. So what to do? Seek to understand the other side, ask questions. As Dale Carnegie said, “to be interesting, you have to  be interested.”
  2. The feeling conversation. Talking about our feelings makes us feel vulnerable and exposed. We feel that if we open up, we will look naked and might do or say something inappropriate and what if the other person dismisses our feeling and does not acknowledge them, and that might hurt us. The problem is if we don’t express our feelings, we will not be able to listen to the other side, as we will be too busy in our heads holding our feelings inside so they don’t show. In many cases, how we feel about the subject fuels our need for the conversation and we should be aware of that, to know what to focus on in the conversation. So what to do? Make sure you aware of your feelings before the conversations, that you know how to express them properly so that it does not just be a venting session, and be ready to listen to the other side’s feelings and acknowledge them, and always remember that your feelings are based on your perception of the situation and not on absolute facts.
  3. The identity conversation. This is a tough one, as it is all about how we see ourselves going into the conversation and then coming out of it. Am I good enough for her to love me? Do I deserve the raise? Am I a bad person for laying off all these people? There are three core identities under this conversation that are at risk; i) am I competent? ii) Am I a good person? And iii) Am I worthy of love? And one must be aware of the core identity during the discussion to be able to not allow whatever outcome to impact our self-acceptance of who we are in the world, nor define us.

Realizing the three types before going into any hard conversation is extremely important to help you assess the conversation, steer it towards the desired objectives, and be focused on the outcome, rather than being consumed by emotions or a fight on who is right and who is wrong. To do that we need to learn how to move towards a “learning conversation” where our dialogue is focused on learning the other side’s point of view and making sure that they learn ours, and maybe we learn that their point of view makes more sense of vice versa or that there is a middle ground that is good for both of us.

A friend of mine called me one day bursting with flames, “he does not love me nor care about me, and all he cares about is going out every night with his friends.” She said. After a long conversation and lots of digging and probing, she told me that her husband went out with his friends the last two nights and that she flipped on him for being out every night and not hanging out with her, and all he cares about are his friends.  After talking some more, it turns out that the roots of her anger were that she wanted to say that she had a tough week and a big fight with her boss and that she did not get the promotion she was waiting for, and that she wanted to talk to her husband about it, to get it off her chest and to feel that he is beside her and supporting her and being there for her. Sometimes when we are in such a situation, we tend to pick a fight and get all agitated on every single action/word from our spouses, thinking that it’s the best way to attract their attention to the situation and our feelings of what we need. The best course of action would have been that she realizes her feelings and what she needs and just ask him to stay in that night as she needs his support on something important.

The learning conversation tactics has a few methods, one of which is the story of the 3rd person. Imagine you are in conflict with a friend and then you both call a third friend of yours to assess the situation. That 3rd person will see things from an elevated view and thus they will see both sides of the story and probably have a better judgment. Hence, when you go into a difficult conversation, try to see the conversation from that view as if a 3rd person is observing the conversation and narrating it from their side. This will defuse the tension and makes both sides more receptive to the conversation.

Sometimes we will not get what we want, but that will be in a more civilized way where we did not reach an agreement but without turning the conversation into a hostile confrontation with casualties.

Finally, if you want to have the conversation then be ready to talk it all through and not just throw in words or hints. Be ready, prepared, and in control.


“Difficult Conversations – How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen

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