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 remarka 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.
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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More articles on Conflict Management:
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- Impasses in Group Decision Making: III
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- They Just Don't Understand
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
- And on October 19: Bullying by Proxy: I
- The form of workplace bullying perhaps most often observed involves a bully and a target. Other forms are less obvious. One of these, bullying by proxy, is especially difficult to control, because it so easily evades most anti-bullying policies. Available here and by RSS on October 19.
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