Trusted Ways to Lower the Temperature in Heated Conversations

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Most of us don’t like conflict.

Conflict can be tense, unpredictable, messy and scary. And, when handled poorly, it can be inefficient at best and destructive at worst.

But conflict does not have to be a four-letter word.

Conflict can be a gateway to solving problems and generating ideas that would never have been possible otherwise. Healthy conflict can build trust, collaboration and effective relationships. It can draw individuals and teams closer together and promote mutual commitment to common goals.

Here are some simple guidelines, drawing mostly from marriage research, for handling conflict in a healthy and productive way in the workplace.

First, DON’T do the following:

  • Withdraw – You may want to walk out in the middle of a heated meeting or give someone the silent treatment afterwards. Resist this urge and hang in there. It can be wise to call a time out if you need to calm down (or you sense someone else does). But set a time soon when you’ll finish the conversation so the other person doesn’t think you’re bailing.thermometer
  • Escalate – In a heated conflict – especially if you feel offended – it’s tempting to up the ante. One person expresses a gripe, the other one responds defensively and brings up a different unrelated issue, and soon there are 10 emotionally charged issues on the table instead of one. Stay focused on the issue at hand.
  • Negatively interpret – Beware of the tendency to assume the worst. “She was late to my meeting because she doesn’t think my project is important.” “He didn’t invite me to the lunch meeting because he’s trying to go behind my back.” Often our ‘hunches’ are more about our fears than our ability to read minds. Check out negative interpretations before locking them in as truth.
  • Invalidate – Sometimes we invalidate people or their views in obvious ways: “Why would we ever want to do that?” “That’s a stupid idea.” Or maybe we’re more subtle: “Well, if I were new like he is, I might see it that way, too.” Non-verbals like eye-rolling, smirking or ignoring someone can be just as invalidating. Putting someone down in these ways communicates disrespect, kills trust and sends a conflict spiraling downward.

There’s an easy way to remember these pitfalls; as authors and psychologists Markman, Stanley and Blumberg say: don’t be a WENI in conflict.

Instead, if you’re spinning your wheels in an emotionally charged conflict, try the following best practices:

1. Separate problem discussion from problem solution.

  • Problem discussion. Many tend to skip too quickly to problem-solving mode. But taking the time up-front to listen and genuinely seek to understand the others’ point of view can help reduce the heat in the conversation and increase mutual understanding.

Demonstrating empathy in this way is different from agreeing. And it saves time and frustration in the long run. Listen with empathy and you’ll build mutual trust and respect and set the stage for more open and creative discussion of productive ways forward.

  • Problem solution. Once you mutually understand the problem, try the following approach to keep a difficult conversation from getting derailed:
    • A – Agenda – Confirm the specific issue you want to solve.
    • B – Brainstorm together about possible solutions.
    • C – Consensus – Agree on a solution.
    • D – Follow-up – Decide when and how you’ll follow up to make sure the solution is working.

2. Setting / Action / Impact

Try the Setting / Action / Impact approach to give difficult feedback or express a gripe in a productive way. Here’s an example:

  • Setting – “Yesterday afternoon at our client meeting … “
  • Action – ” … You interrupted me three times … “
  • Impact – ” … That made it difficult for me to get my point across. I’m afraid we looked like we didn’t have our act together to these clients. And I was frustrated.”

Using this approach helps keep tough messages specific, objective, non-accusatory and more likely to be understood and received well.

Handling conflict well sounds easy but is very difficult in the moment. The best way to improve in this area is to practice. Is there a situation you face where you could try one of these ideas?

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps leaders and their teams strengthen their skills in having productive conflict and effective relationships. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.