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:
- Avoid Typing Under the Influence
- When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense
is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as
members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?
- Fill in the Blanks
- When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others
to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful insights.
- Toxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks
- In toxic conflict, people try to resolve their differences by eliminating each other's ability to provide
opposition. In the early stages of toxic conflict, the attacks often escape notice. Here's a catalog
of covert attack tactics.
- Unanswerable Questions
- Some questions are beyond our power to answer, but many of us try anyway. What are some of these unanswerable
questions and how can we respond?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 12: Effects of Shared Information Bias: II
- Shared information bias is widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But over time, it can erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality and the group's perceptions of reality. Available here and by RSS on December 12.
- And on December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
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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.