Difficult conversations are an unavoidable part of life.
And usually, what makes those conversations so challenging are all the strong emotions that come with them…
- The anxiety and fear you feel before confronting your best friend about their drinking problem makes it hard to be articulate and clearly express your concerns.
- The anger and defensiveness you feel when you’re being criticized by your spouse makes it difficult to assertively set a boundary, and instead, start attacking and criticizing back.
- Your coworker’s shame and disappointment when you deliver some very negative feedback about their performance recently make it difficult to be honest about the feedback you need to give.
Difficult conversations would be a lot less difficult if we were calmer and more in control of our emotions.
As a psychologist, I have emotionally difficult conversations for a living. And a big part of that work is helping other people to have difficult conversations despite those challenging emotions instead of just avoiding them.
If you want to be calmer and more emotionally balanced during difficult conversations, here are 10 suggestions to get you started:
1. Be strategic about time and place
Let’s say you want to have a difficult conversation with your spouse.
All other things being equal, is it better to do it:
- In bed at 10:30 pm after a long, stressful day, or
- Sunday morning at 9:00 am after a nice breakfast and a night of good sleep?
Obviously, the second!
But too often we end up falling into difficult conversations, which means we’re going into them when we’re not at our best—stressed, tired, distracted, etc.
If you’ve got a difficult conversation you need to have, be thoughtful and strategic about when and where you have that conversation.
PRO TIP: Do difficult conversations outside while walking. A little movement and a bit of sunshine does wonders for almost everyone when it comes to managing difficult emotions.
2. Validate difficult emotions early.
Difficult emotions are uncomfortable, but they’re not dangerous…
- Feeling ashamed can’t hurt you.
- And someone else’s disappointment won’t hurt them (or you).
Still, because those difficult emotions can be painful and uncomfortable, our tendency is to treat them like problems to be solved or avoided.
- When your partner describes how anxious they’ve been at their job lately, you react by asking if they’ve tried reading that book about stress reduction you recommended or exercising more.
- Or let’s say you’re feeling anxious about your son’s bad grades he’s describing and find yourself getting angry and critical at his poor work ethic as a way to avoid your own fears and anxieties.
In any case, responding to difficult emotions with problem-solving or avoidance tends to only make things more emotionally charged.
On the other hand, if you take a moment to validate your emotions—to remind yourself or your counterpart that it’s okay to feel whatever emotions are present—it’s like a pressure release valve that takes the edge off the emotional intensity everyone’s feeling.
If it’s helpful, here’s a brief guide I wrote on How to validate your emotions →
3. Criticize behavior, not character.
Suppose you’re having conflict with a coworker and your manager has asked the two of you to meet with him to work things out. A big part of the problem is their tendency to be late and flaky on shared projects, which leads to you having more unnecessary work.
During the conversation, be very careful to avoid saying things that criticize your coworker’s character like “Jeff’s always late and never sticks with his commitments.”
Instead, focus on specific behaviors that are problematic:
- “Last week, it took him three days after the deadline to get his material to me” Or…
- “Last week, he was fifteen minutes late to our meeting. And the week before, he rescheduled it twice at the last minute.”
When you make generalizations about people’s character or personality as a whole, it feels like an attack. Which leads them to get defensive and you to get even more frustrated and upset.
So, especially when you need to be critical, remember to focus on a person’s specific behaviors rather than traits, character, or personality. Criticize the action, not the person.
4. Anticipate defensiveness
Everybody gets defensive sometimes—and it’s especially common in difficult conversations.
Unfortunately, most people’s reaction to feeling defensive is to start acting defensive, which only intensifies all the difficult emotions present and makes it harder to stay calm and have a productive conversation.
One of the best ways to deal with defensiveness—either your own or theirs—is to proactively anticipate it.
For example: If you need to deliver some negative feedback to a close a family member, you might spend 10 minutes ahead of time imagining what topics in particular will lead them or you to feel defensive:
I know she works really hard on throwing great parties, so my criticism about the way she handled the incident at mom’s birthday party is likely to trigger some defensiveness in her.
While it’s uncomfortable, imagining and anticipating defensiveness ahead of time lets you prepare for it. Specifically, it will help you be mindful in the moment when defensiveness arises to acknowledge and validate the feelings of defensiveness so that you don’t end up acting defensive (or so that they are less likely to feel the need to act out their defensiveness.
I’ve written a whole guide on defensiveness and managing it well here →
5. Remind yourself of your values
One of the biggest reasons why it’s hard to stay calm in difficult conversations is that we become reactive.
In particular, we end up reacting to difficult emotions because we want to avoid them…
- We start angrily criticizing to keep the focus off our own insecurities and fears
- We become overly accommodating and deferential because we feel anxious about upsetting the other person
- We start giving advice and not listening well because we want to avoid the sadness that comes with really hearing someone else’s struggle.
Unfortunately, by reacting to our emotions, we get distracted from what’s really important in the conversation—listening empathetically, arriving at a nuanced understanding, expressing yourself clearly, etc.
Well, one of the best ways to avoid being emotionally reactive is to be mindful of your personal values.
For example, if you take a few minutes before a difficult conversation and reflect on your value of courage and why it’s important to you, you’ll be much more likely to move toward your goal of communicating your wants and needs clearly rather than getting lost in reactions to your fears and insecurities.
In short, reflecting on your values primes you to stay focused on what really matters rather than getting lost in difficult emotions.
6. Script out the conversation ahead of time
This is one of the more unusual but powerful ways to stay calmer during a difficult conversation: Imagine the conversation is a scene in a movie and you’re the screenwriter— What would the script look like?
So, literally, write out the important things you want to say, as well as the things your counterpart is likely to say, and then piece them together as you imagine the conversation might flow.
Now, keep in mind that what’s important here is not that you get it “right.”
Obviously, there’s no way you can predict exactly how it will go. But by forcing yourself to script out the conversation ahead of time, you’re doing two really beneficial things:
- You’re forcing yourself to be clear about what you really would like to say and how you’d like to say it. This will make it easier to be articulate and assertive in the moment, perhaps when emotions are running high, because you’ve done a dress rehearsal already.
- You’re anticipating what they might say, and consequently, how you might respond. Which, again, will make it easier (though not necessarily easy) to do it in the moment.
7. Update your expectations
A lot of the emotional swings that happen during a difficult conversation are the result of (unreasonable) expectations being violated, which leads to unnecessarily high levels of surprise, anger, disappointment, and the like.
- Let’s say you go into a conversation with your boss expecting that you’ll be getting a raise because of your obvious performance improvements over the last year.
- But then she tells you you won’t be getting a raise because the company is struggling financially.
- Well, that’s disappointing, for sure. But because the story you’ve been telling yourself is about how much you deserve a raise, you’re also going to experience a lot of anger and frustration on top of that disappointment.
- And all that extra emotion is going to make it harder to stay calm in the conversation.
On the other hand, suppose ahead of time you had asked yourself:
What expectations do I have about this conversation?
Then, after identifying this one about the raise, you asked yourself:
Are there any good reasons to think that story might not turn out to be true?
If you seriously reflected on those questions, you would be much more prepared to handle the unexpected news of not getting a raise in a calmer, more balanced way.
More on managing your expectations here: To Let Go of Unhealthy Expectations, Ask Yourself These 3 Questions
8. Clarify your conversation boundaries
We frequently get upset and angry in conversations because we feel disrespected…
- Our counterpart talks too much and doesn’t let us get a word in.
- They’re dismissive of our point of view or invalidating.
- Maybe they’ve been borderline abusive and ended up yelling or threatening us.
In any case, much of our emotional overwhelm in difficult conversations comes from getting trampled on. And while your counterpart certainly bears some responsibility for this, ultimately it’s up to you to establish and enforce boundaries that protect you from the disrespect and abuse that is so upsetting.
So, if you want to feel calmer and more in control during difficult conversations, spend some time beforehand clarifying your boundaries in the conversation…
- How much rudeness are you willing to tolerate?
- What will you do if they persist in being rude?
- Is yelling okay? If not, what are you prepared to do if your counterpart starts yelling?
It’s hard to stay calm in a difficult conversation when you have no boundaries.
But it’s pretty hard to set (much less enforce) your boundaries if you haven’t taken the time to actually think about what they are!
So, before getting into a difficult conversation, take a little time to reflect on your conversation boundaries and make a plan for what you will do if they’re not respected.
9. Don’t weaponize ancient history
In high-conflict conversations, it can be SO tempting to cherry pick some event or example from the past and use it to “prove” your point about your counterpart:
Well, you’re no saint! Remember that time you completely forgot my birthday?
The problem is this leads to an artificial sense of self-righteousness, which then gets in the way of your objectivity, and ultimately, emotional balance.
Remember, gratifying emotions like anger or self-righteousness can lead to emotional imbalance just as easily as painful emotions like fear or shame.
What’s more, when you weaponize ancient history like that, you further escalate the conflict and tacitly give your counterpart permission to do the same. This leads to an emotionally overwhelming and highly counterproductive spiral of unhealthy criticism and exaggerated emotions.
Of course, facts from the past can be useful in conversations, but check your motivation:
- Are you using them dispassionately as a way to achieve your goals in the conversation?
- Or are you weaponizing them and using them as a way to make yourself feel better?
10. Acknowledge mistakes genuinely
All too often, difficult conversations end up as battles, each person trying their hardest to defeat the other person or “win” the conversation.
And unsurprisingly, if you’re thinking and acting as if a conversation is a battle or competition, your emotions are going to run hot with lots of unfair criticisms, defensiveness, and abuse stoking the emotional flames.
On the other hand, if you can approach the conversation as a shared journey, rather than a competition, you’re much more likely to keep your cool and stay calm. And a great way to do this is by acknowledging mistakes.
When you acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake somehow, it’s incredibly disarming. Your counterpart won’t feel as judged or attacked, which means they’re less likely to escalate themselves.
So, even though it can be difficult, genuinely acknowledging a mistake you’ve made that’s relevant to the conversation is a great way to diffuse defensiveness and competition in the conversation.
In fact, even if you don’t need to acknowledge a mistake or shortcoming, consider doing it anyway as a way to foster vulnerability and trust.
Want to learn more about keeping your emotions in control and having difficult conversations?
Here are a few more resources you might like:
8 CommentsAdd Yours
Good article. I’d love to read the article for the other person in the conversation. I’m being forced to sit through a conversation this week that will inevitably be condescending and frustrating. How can I make that less hellish for myself?
The answer lies in boundaries. You can only control what you do, not what another person does.
Nicely rendered. But the catch is, if the other person “weaponize ancient history” how to manage this.
This is helpful and so timely! A phrase I’ve used to establish a boundary and “exit” when a conversation gets too heated is “I’m sorry we weren’t able to understand each other and I have no ill will towards you.” It gave us space to take a break and the other person later surprisingly apologized for losing their temper. I will keep thinking about ways to prep on advance bc I do find that helpful as the article says.
Another super helpful article. It’s helpful to see my chaotic emotions explained in simple, logical words! Thx, Nick!
Is showing your SO this article or reading it aloud with them “weaponizing” the information? I exist in this “failure to fight fair” environment and choose not to escalate, but also not to interrupt. But I cannot finish 2 sentences before I am invalidated and “told” what I am “truly thinking”, which in no way reflects my thoughts. Leaving the room after a brief re-explanation of the rules we agreed on in therapy has zero effect upon a revisit, eleven after a week long cool down. I am at my witts end.
Love the article! I find #10 very hard bc it feels like it’s so often turned against me. Does that mean it’s not genuine? I just feel like admitting a mistake shouldn’t invalidate the pain that’s causing me to have the conversation.