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!

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

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