How to handle your emotions in a conversation you'd rather not have

Ugh. You know you've got that conversation with that person who pushes all of your buttons. You're avoiding it like the plague, you know it has the potential to go pear shaped or at least for you to lose your cool. You know what they're like, right? So unreasonable.

No truck here I am afraid. I am going to saddle you yet again (I was going to link this to a previous blog post here, but there were too many where I do the same thing!) with the responsibility for whether your conversations with that problem person are constructive. With whether you allow them to push your buttons. With whether you allow things to get out of control. Though please don't think I am some kind of saint who's judging from high. I am prone to having my buttons pushed and I would have frankly been unemployable if I hadn't learned them!

So no, it’s not the other person’s willingness or otherwise to come to agreement with you. Not whether they are happy to engage constructively in the conversation. It's not their emotional state in the room (though if you have conducted yourself well all of those things can be indicators of an unsolvable problem.) Unfortunately the most powerful way you can control the outcome is by controlling yourself.

No one finds these conversations easy. Some people appear to be able to have them without flinching, but this is simply a result of practice. Practice gives you an idea of the ebb and flow of these things, and the knowledge you can almost always take questions and comments on notice if you (or they) need to pause and re-group. That only really comes from exposure. But there are some tricks. And, like anything, once you have done it a few times and they have been a success, it becomes more and more intuitive.

So what can you do to set yourself up for success:

  1. Plan. This is the most important part of the process. Think about them and their past behaviours, think about you and yours. Think about the outcome you want and how you want to present yourself. Think about how they press your buttons. Think about how you can prevent them from doing so! Questions you can ask yourself include:

  • What outcome are you trying to achieve? What do you want from them?

  • How do you anticipate the person will react?

  • More importantly how might you react to that reaction? What will your emotional responses be to that? Is that the emotional response you want to convey? If not, what do you want to convey? What might be some strategies for achieving that?

  • Are there things you anticipate the employee will ask for/demand? Are you willing to give/do those things? If not, is there a halfway point you’re willing to concede? Is there a kind way you can tell them they can’t have what they want?

  • What data do you have as evidence of the feedback you want to provide? Does it genuinely provide that evidence? If not, what do you need?

  • Are there questions you want to ask? Statements you want to make?

Write all of this down. Then summarise your notes for your meeting.

  1. Pause to collect yourself beforehand.

This is probably sacrilegious advice given the standard suggestion – rightly – is never be late to performance and conduct conversations. But if you have to run directly to that meeting from another, you’re going to handle it much better if you’re 5 minutes late because you’ve taken a moment to collect yourself than running straight into a performance or conduct meeting from another meeting. Accept there might be some push back from the employee. Be genuinely apologetic, but know the outcome will be better for both of you for it. And a pro tip – if you have something immediately before make sure everything you need is ready to go beforehand so you’re not rushing around at the last minute.

  1. Focus on behaviours, not the person.

“This behaviour gives the impression …” not “You are …”

2. Rip the bandaid off.

With kindness, launch straight into it (“I know this must feel really uncomfortable, but I am here today to talk about …”) Anything other than that makes it more and more awkward the longer time goes on. Rip the bandaid off; you’ll both be relived.

3. Give yourself plenty of time.

Much better to have plenty of time than be clock watching because your next meeting is in 5. These conversations can take some really unexpected and useful turns if you’re open and curious.

4. Collaborate, don’t be combative

You’re going to need to find the solution together. These conversations are primarily fact-finding missions. Why is there an issue? How can we solve it? There may be a hard expectation you need that person to meet, but they’re going to have to be a party to how they get there.

5. In the same vein, don’t allow yourself to become exasperated.

Sometimes they just won’t or will refuse to get it. Our brains can do play some pretty incredible tricks on us to avoid cognitive dissonance, and sometimes it’s more powerful than you are - even if you bring all the logic to the table. If they’re just not budging or are digging in, state your expectation and how you plan to support them, give them a set time frame for any feedback they might have offline and end the meeting.

6. Summarise and confirm.

Summarise your understanding of their position. Summarise what you want from them. Summarise what each of you has agreed to do and the associated timeframes at the end of the meeting. George Bernard Shaw famously said;

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Make sure it actually has!

7. Always, always, always be respectful.

This one speaks for itself.

Good luck!