Where does the heat come from when a discussion gets "heated?" Sometimes it seems like spontaneous combustion, but it takes at least two people for either one of them to get hot. You hardly ever see anyone go from peaceful to angry when they're sitting in a room alone. Unless the news is on.
Sometimes your contribution to the heat isn't what you did — it's what you did not. When your conversation partner moves toward anger, how can you defuse the situation? A good starting point is to check your own did-nots. And for me, one common did-not is not letting my partner know I've heard.
Much of what we call discussion is actually a sequence of attempts to get the other to acknowledge us. Here are some phrases that suggest that your partner isn't feeling heard, in roughly increasing order of danger. If you hear two or three of these, be warned.
- That's true, but I was talking about something else…
- I'm sorry, perhaps I wasn't being clear
- Let me explain
- Not quite…
- Sometimes your contribution
to the heat isn't what
you did — it's what
you did not.That's not what I mean (meant)
- Let me try again
- It's not that simple…
- That has nothing to do what I'm talking about
- That's a separate issue…let's take this one step at a time.
- What's the problem here? I just explained that.
- I never said that. What I did say was…
- (Turning to a third party) Did you understand what I was saying? Am I being clear here? Help me out…
- Didn't you hear what I just said?
- Exactly what part of that wasn't clear?
When you notice that your partner doesn't feel heard, what can you do?
- Deal with your fear of conversion
- If you haven't really been listening, one possible reason is a fear that if you actually listen and understand, your debate partner will convert you. Remind yourself that your beliefs are always your choice. Nobody can convert you against your will.
- Stop debating
- Debating might not be worth the effort, because until your partner feels heard, listening to you isn't likely to happen.
- Offer assurance
- Simply assuring your partner that you do hear and understand might be enough. It doesn't necessarily commit you to action (or inaction) of any kind.
- Realize that it might not be about you
- Most people don't listen well, and they often assume that others don't either. Your mission is to communicate that you've heard, despite this barrier.
Sometimes, in exasperation, your partner will ask outright for acknowledgment that you've heard. Viewing this as questioning your good faith leads to yet more trouble. Instead, view the question as an opportunity to finally prove that you have heard — by proving it. Top Next Issue
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!
We sometimes speak in indirect terms without realizing we are, and the indirectness itself can make communication difficult. For more on indirectness see "The True Costs of Indirectness," Point Lookout for November 29, 2006.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- The Loopy Things We Do at Work
- At the end of the day, your skill at finding humor inside the dull and ordinary can make the difference
between going home exhausted and going home in a strait jacket. Adopting a twisted view of the goings-on
might just help keep you untwisted.
- Toxic 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?
- When Somebody Throws a Nutty
- To "throw a nutty" — at work, that is — can include anything from extreme verbal
over-reaction to violent physical abuse of others. When someone exhibits behavior at the milder end
of this spectrum, what responses are appropriate?
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
- Face-Off Negotiations
- In difficult face-to-face negotiations — or any face-to-face negotiations — seating arrangements
do matter. Here's an exploration of one common seating pattern.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people 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.