I have been exploring a four-step process for difficult conversations. The idea behind the process is that there is a way to discuss even the most difficult of subjects and, potentially, find consensus. Megan Phelps-Roper presented this method in a TED Talk.  She is a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka (and the granddaughter of its founder, Fred Phelps). The TED Talk reflects her journey from being the online spokesperson for the church’s hate fueled message to leaving the church. Along the way she interacted with lots of people who opposed her, and the Westboro Baptist Church’s, message. She noticed that some people were able to break through and convince her to reconsider her position. In evaluating those people who were successful with her, she discovered they all followed a similar methodology. The four steps they used to have a hard conversation successfully, according to Ms. Phelps-Roper, were:

  1. Don’t assume the either side has bad intentions.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Stay calm.
  4. Make the argument.

This article will focus on the third step – staying calm.

Most Obvious but Most Difficult

When I first was introduced to this four step process, my immediate reaction was this step was the most obvious, and the hardest. I still feel that way. If we asked 100 different people what they thought were the four most important things to keep in mind when having a challenging conversation, I think we would get “stay calm” as one of those four keys from nearly everyone. Intuitively we all know we are more persuasive and effective when we remain in control. The tough part is putting the advice into practice. How do you stay calm in the middle of an emotionally charged conversation? How do you keep your composure if the other side is doing everything in their power to push you over the edge? There are no easy answers to these questions, unfortunately. However, some tips can help.

Ms. Phelps-Roper points out the challenge during her talk. “Dialing up the volume and the snark is natural in stressful situations, but it tends to bring the conversation to an unsatisfactory, explosive end.” When someone attacks us personally, our natural inclination is to respond in kind. Unfortunately, this instinctive reaction makes the problem worse, not better. Think about the scenes of political protest, and counter-protest, recently. Two sides of people, barely separated, screaming at the top of their lungs at each other. Now, ask yourself, has anybody from either side changed their position based on those encounters? Not very likely. Instead, the increased tension has made both sides more committed to their position.

Avoiding Snark and Drama

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If our natural reaction is counterproductive, how can we avoid this trap? I believe simply being aware of the issue is a good start. I often tell my clients in a disputed divorce case to remember the other side may be trying to provoke a reaction from you. Often they want to maintain some ability to control or manipulate you. They are after a reaction from you, not a resolution to the problem. Once you are aware of this, you can respond differently. One way to do this is to fall back on the first two steps suggested by Ms. Phelps-Roper. Assume they have some neutral motive for their action, and ask them questions rather than lashing out. For example, one parent may accuse the other of not caring about their child’s school because they never attend parent-teacher conferences. “Little Johnny loses points every time he is with you because you don’t sign his homework which you would know to do if you ever went to a conference.” The instinctive reaction for self-defense may come out as “I have to work to pay you child support and alimony.” What if, instead, we considered the possibility the other parent has a legitimate concern for the child’s education? Instead of lashing out, we could try asking some questions. “These conferences always come up during the workday, and my boss will not let me out of the office. Does the teacher have any evening time slots available? If not, could I participate by Facetime or Skype?”

Take a Break

Ms. Phelps-Roper mentions another strategy for dealing with escalating tensions – take a break. She explains the man who eventually became her husband would refuse to take the bait and respond harshly. Instead, he would only say he was done for the night, and they could resume the conversation later. As a result, the tensions never spilled over and derailed their conversations. They were able to have better communication by stepping away and letting the tensions dissolve. Think about high-pressure salespeople. What is the one tactic they most use to create that high pressure? A deadline to act is their best weapon. They know that if you rush, you are more likely to do something you might not do with more time to reflect. The same is true in a conversation. You are more likely to say something hateful or negative if you respond immediately. You can do a better job remaining calm if you can step away, even if only for a few moments.

Address the Tactic Non Confrontationally

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Finally, in the book, Getting to Yes, Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, authors Fisher, Ury, and Patton talk about the problems caused by hostile negotiators, and steps you can take to deal with them. Their advice is to recognize the tactic, address it directly, and question the tactic’s legitimacy and desirability (but not the person using it – the focus is on the tactic itself as an impediment). For example, if the other side is using a good cop-bad cop strategy, they recommend responding “Say, Joe, I may be totally mistaken, but I’m getting the feeling you and Ted here are playing a good-guy/bad-guy routine. If you two want a recess any time to straighten out differences between you, just ask.” (Getting to Yes, p. 130). The focus is on what they are doing, not on them as individuals. By pointing out you are aware of the tactic and forcing the other side to address it directly, you can often defuse the situation. Similarly, many people deal with high-pressure telemarketers this way. They want you to make a snap decision while still on the phone. Simply saying “I’m sorry, I don’t make deals over the phone because it is too easy for there to be a misunderstanding. If you want to mail me a brochure, I would be happy to review it,” will often diffuse the pressure by making the tactic – a phone call with an immediate deadline – the direct object of the discussion. You are telling them you are aware of what they are doing, but you are not willing to agree to their terms. If this a good deal, as they claim, it will stand up to scrutiny.

As I said earlier, this is, in my mind, the hardest step. It is far easier to respond in kind than to respond with kindness. But, if you can remember to stay calm, you will have more success with your stressful conversations.