26 August 2005

How to handle an emotional conversation

How do you have a productive conversation with someone who is upset or otherwise emotional? Well, the short answer is: you don’t. But you can make the best of the situation and often turn it around if you can recognize the dynamics that are at work.

Emotional conversations don’t just bubble up out of nowhere. By the time someone has gotten to the point of having an emotional conversation with you, there is probably a history there, even if you are not aware of it. The history could take several forms:
  • It could be that they were talking to someone else in your organization and they just got “escalated” to you.

  • It could also be that you were not actively listening to them; that is, you may have been paying attention to their words but not their tone of voice or body language.

  • It could also be that you unintentionally (or intentionally!) triggered an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with you but could be buried deep in the other person’s psyche or emotional history.

If people worked like web browsers (thank god they don’t!) you could just check the “history” button or look at the log files and figure it out. Since people are biological beings (thank god they are!), you need to take a more biological approach.

It may have taken quite a while before their emotion reached the level that it is visible to you. The more controlled the person, the more startling it may be when they “burst out” at you. Warning: I am not a psychiatrist; my observations come from my practical experience running a business and managing people. That said, here are a few tips for getting through an emotional conversation:
  1. Don’t defend yourself. People who are emotional usually feel that their point of view is rational and justifiable, and you won’t get anywhere telling them otherwise.

  2. Verbally recognize the feelings at play. You don’t have to think the emotions are justified or find the conclusions logical. Simply try to confirm that you have recognized the proper emotion and let the person know that the emotion, at least, is legitimate. For example, “It sounds to me like you are feeling quite angry about this.”

  3. Try to understand and play back the “emotional history.” Ask questions to help you understand how the person got to this point. Usually this won’t be difficult because they are probably burning to tell you the story of how they were wounded or offended.

  4. Don’t feel that you need to solve the problem immediately. If you can solve the problem instantaneously, great. If you need time to think about it, or need to gather more information, tell the person that you understand the importance of the issue, and you need some time to think about it/get more information.

  5. Follow up. If you don’t solve the problem immediately, make a promise to follow up at a later time with resolution. Be specific, as in “I will get back to you by the end of the day.” Then be sure to make good on your promise.

  6. Above all, don’t get emotional yourself. If you find yourself going there, take a deep breath and remove yourself from the situation as diplomatically as you can.*

*There are some exceptions to this one. Sometimes a conversation that is emotional on both sides needs to continue, especially if it is with someone you know well. If you sense that you may be nearing an important emotional breakthrough, keep going and follow your instincts. Sometimes an emotional conversation is just what it takes to strengthen a meaningful bond between two people.

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1 comment:

kunal said...

to add to wat u say...i feel sometimes you just need to listen to what others have to say, especially if it is the first time someone broke in front of you. in this situation you simply serve as a medium for the others to ease themselves. But mayb next time you can contribute or indulge deep into the matter.