A client, Meg, told me that in conflict at work she finds it difficult to “think through the noise” in her head. That phrase really resonates with me because that’s my experience as well. I suspect Meg and I are not alone. Here’s some of the “noise” that goes on in my brain when I’m in a disagreement:
- How am I sounding right now? Is this the way I want to come across?
- Should I take the bait or let that one go?
- What’s the outcome I seek here — what’s my real goal for this conversation?
- Will I care enough about this one down the road to fight the fight now?
- How am I doing? Am I escalating or ok?
- How’s the other person doing? Well enough that we should continue?
- Am I being heard here? If not, what would help that happen?
No wonder it’s hard to think clearly in difficult conversations! And yet there are some things you (and I) can to reduce the brain noise a bit.
Give yourself enough time to catch your breath and get your thoughts in order. If you’ve been blind-sided by a surprise attack, this means stopping the conversation, telling the other person you want to talk more about it but first want to get your thoughts together, and identifying a time you will both return to it. Take a few minutes to a few days to be sure you’re clear on your long-term goals for the conversation, what you think the other person’s and your own legitimate needs are, and what’s the real problem you’re both trying to solve together.
Being able to think through the noise of conflict depends on having some of your good skills accessible when you need them most. This means practicing with those skills in low-stakes, non-conflict situations. Really good listening. Asking effective questions. Uncovering interests. Framing the real problem. You wouldn’t take an Italian class, ignore what you learned for three months, then go to Tuscany and expect to be fluent, would you?
If you find your emotion escalating to a level you think will become a problem, stop. Take a break to calm down (there’s a very specific type of break you should take; for more information, read Take a Real Break).