Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 17;   April 24, 2013: First Aid for Wounded Conversations

First Aid for Wounded Conversations

by

Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
The John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama

The John Hollis Bankhead Lock and Dam on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. The view is looking downstream at Holt Lake, which is formed by Holt Lock and Dam, downriver. In the foreground is Bankhead Lake. The Bankhead Lock, completed in 1975, was damaged on August 11, 1975, during an operation to move a northbound towboat and barge through the new lock. The lower gates of the lock failed when the lock was about half filled with water. The gates were torn loose from the lock, and the towboat and barge were swept downsteam. (See The Tuscaloosa News, January 16, 1976, p.8) There were no injuries, but the lock was closed for repairs for five months. During the closure, a conveyor system was installed to move coal around the closed lock. Coal was offloaded from one barge, conveyed past the closed lock, and reloaded onto another barge to continue along the river to the steel plants in Birmingham. (See The Tuscaloosa News, October 2, 1975, p.13)

This temporary bypass, such an obvious technique in the physical realm, enabled progress to continue until the repairs of the lock could be completed. In conversation, the technique of bypassing trouble until we can resolve it later is less obvious to some, and actually condemned by others. Photo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, available at Wikipedia.

A wounded conversation is one that began pleasantly enough, and then took a wrong turn. Outright hostilities haven't broken out, and some participants might be unaware of any discomfort. But discomfort there is. Perhaps the cause was an error or slip. Perhaps it was intentional, but contributed out of momentary pique. In either case, from that point, things can go well or not, depending on the participants' choices.

Let's suppose that Wilfred made the unfortunate remark. How can you prevent further damage and pain? Here are some approaches for providing first aid for wounded conversations.

Fight not
Pushing back on Wilfred probably won't help. If he had hostile intentions, counterstrikes will likely make things worse. If he made the comment in error, counterstrikes don't help at all.
Flee not
Exiting the conversation won't help much, even if you're the object of the remark. If Wilfred intended offense, exit rewards him. If he didn't intend it, exiting might offend him or compel him to claim that he spoke with intent. Skipping on to another unrelated topic isn't much better than exiting.
Seek a smooth transition
Incorporating the offensive remark into the flow of the conversation in a smooth transition can be difficult indeed, but if you can find a way to do it, healing can begin. The most difficult elements of this tactic are the speed, grace, and deftness with which it is executed.
Apply first aid inquiry
Genuine interest in someone's views can be disarming, and disarming is just what's needed in wounded conversations. Inquire about something Wilfred cares about. Choose a topic different from the one Wilfred chose, but related enough to it so that the inquiry doesn't appear to be a flatfooted deflection. The inquiry can provide a path to a safer place.
Apply first aid humor
Each of us has Exiting the conversation
won't help much, even
if you're the object
of the remark
a unique sense of humor, but we (almost) all do have one. Find something you and Wilfred (and any others who are around) can share a laugh about. Keep it connected to Wilfred's remark, if you can, to form a bridge to a safer place. You don't need side-splitting laughter. A chuckle will do.
Seek a neutral third-party perspective
If Wilfred directed his comment toward you, and you have the "floor," you can direct a question about the remark to another participant: "Hmm, interesting. Jess, didn't something like that come up on your team last year?" This technique is useful if you're confident that Jess understands the importance of healing the wounded conversation. A neutral comment from her would then make two in a row, and much of the tension Wilfred's remark created can dissipate.

If someone in the group is intent on wounding all conversations, these techniques are ineffective. But then, that's a performance issue best addressed by the supervisor. Go to top Top  Next issue: Devious Political Tactics: Mis- and Disinformation  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenRfmvpgfGTYbbPyEvner@ChacWIYvoErYBPZdEFHYoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

A man using a chainsawDiscussion Distractions: II
Meetings are less productive than they might be, if we could learn to recognize and prevent the most common distractions. Here is Part II of a small catalog of distractions frequently seen in meetings.
A flame arrestor of the type that is required on gasoline cans in the United StatesPreventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness
When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently. When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
A field of corn severely stunted by droughtToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Virtuality
In virtual teams, toxic conflict sometimes seems to erupt spontaneously. People who function effectively in co-located teams can find themselves repeatedly embroiled in conflicts that seem to lack specific causes. What triggers toxic conflict in virtual teams?
Gen. Robert E. Lee's traveling chess setSo You Want the Bullying to End: II
If you're the target of a workplace bully, ending the bullying can be an elusive goal. Here are some guidelines for tactics to bring it to a close.
Bull moose sparring in Grand Teton National ParkContextual Causes of Conflict: I
When destructive conflict erupts, we usually hold responsible only the people directly involved. But the choices of others, and general circumstances, can be the real causes of destructive conflict.

See also Conflict Management and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Artist's concept of possible colonies on future mars missionsComing June 28: Tackling Hard Problems: I
Hard problems need not be big problems. Even when they're small, they can halt progress on any project. Here's Part I of an approach to working on hard problems by breaking them down into smaller steps. Available here and by RSS on June 28.
Artist's depiction of a dust storm on Mars with lightningAnd on July 5: Tackling Hard Problems: II
In this Part II of our look at solving hard problems, we continue developing properties of the solution, and look at how we get from the beginning to the end. Available here and by RSS on July 5.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrentqEYjCSkfUVnifdRner@ChacHfIqMpQQXmCUebNEoCanyon.com or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here are some upcoming dates for this program:

Creating High Performance Virtual Teams
Many Creating High Performance Virtual Teamspeople experience virtual teams as awkward, slow, and sometimes frustrating. Even when most team members hail from the same nation or culture, and even when they all speak the same language, geographic dispersion or the presence of employees from multiple enterprises is often enough to exclude all possibility of high performance. The problem is that we lead, manage, and support virtual teams in ways that are too much like the way we lead, manage, and support co-located teams. In this program, Rick Brenner shows you how to change your approach to leading, managing, and supporting virtual teams to achieve high performance using Simons' Four Spans model of high performance. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14The Race to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
21st Century Business TravelAre your business trips long chains of stressful misadventures? Have you ever wondered if there's a better way to get from here to there relaxed and refreshed? First class travel is one alternative, but you can do almost as well (without the high costs) if you know the tricks of the masters of 21st-century e-enabled business travel…
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.