Radioactive Conversations — And How To Avoid Them

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April 8, 2013 /Forbes/ – If there’s a ticking bomb in your personal or professional life, you already know it’s better to defuse it than to let it explode. If you don’t face it head on, you risk fallout that can last months, years—or even a lifetime.

Is it a conversation with your partner about where you should live, or with your child about how she’s doing in school, or who his friends are? Perhaps at work you’ve locked horns with your boss over your own vision and priorities – and you sense it’s beginning to affect your career trajectory. In any of these cases, the odds are that you don’t want to deal with it; and they don’t either.

But the longer you put it off, the fewer ticks are left before the bomb goes off. When it does, a lot of heat gets released, and things get said that can’t be unsaid. Bad goes to worse. And sometimes, worse goes to radioactive.

Why hazard that kind of damage when some thoughtful preparation, and cool-headed discussion, can disarm many confrontations before they happen? Here are a few strategies that can turn tension into progress:

1. Atmospherics matter. Pick a good moment, and a good place. Make things as easy as possible on the other party. Try to catch them in an even mood. People don’t respond well when they’re hungry or exhausted, or in a location where they feel vulnerable. And have the talk in private, without eavesdroppers or referees.

2. Don’t bury the lede. Resist the temptation to start the conversation by asking how the other person is feeling. Vague overtures may seem like a good way to “test of the waters,” but may only make you seem hesitant or ill at ease. If it’s a colleague, launch the conversation with a straightforward, “I’ve been wanting to talk with you for a while about something that’s getting in the way of our working well together. I’d like to discuss how we might fix what’s causing it.”

3. Listen (first), listen (well), listen (generously). After opening the conversation with a clear statement of your intentions, offer to let the other party share his or her perspective before you do. It’s a gesture of goodwill and respect – and getting off to a good, unselfish start means a better chance of a good, unselfish outcome.

Then, listen like it’s your job. Have the discipline to repeat what you’ve heard (“What I hear you saying is…”). Your work isn’t done until the other person feels that you’ve understood her perspective. Beware: You may feel the explosion coming on before you get to this point. That’s normal, and in fact it’s likely why the conflict exists in the first place. But stay cool, and don’t interrupt except for clarification, or to gently ask your counterpart not to wander too far into ancient history. Good listening alone can go a long way toward solving a conflict.

4. Your turn: Be clear. Be calm. When it comes time to give critical feedback, express it in the form of concern. If you want to talk to your teenager about his behavior, try something like, “You know how much I care about you. My own experience with how the world works makes me feel that I owe you some guardrails. I’m going to ask you to trust me on this.” Granted, teens aren’t likely to jump into your corner, even with this approach. But it sets the tone for your longer-term goal — to nourish a trust relationship where you still have some influence over an increasingly free agent.

The same goes for charged conversations with a supervisor or employee. If you’re giving negative feedback, do it in a spirit of growth and forward movement, discuss a fair plan for addressing the issue, and set up a time to reconnect and check in.

5. Don’t be the one to pull the pin. If things get heated, you may hear things like “I’ll see you in court,” “You’re such a jerk,” or “That’s it! I’m outta here!” But don’t let it be you who goes there.

The jujitsu of high-stress conversations means you want to move toward the other party if the rhetoric turns hostile. The louder, more aggressive, more threatening he becomes, the lower your volume must be, and the more you must absorb. This doesn’t mean capitulating or accepting abuse; it means being the bigger person. Instead of answering a legal threat with, “I hope you’ve got a good lawyer, then,” try something like, “I’m sad you feel that way. I’d hate for that to be where we end up. Let’s explore a less destructive course of action.”

Stressful conversations are worth having sooner than later. Conducted with care, they can release pressure before it builds to the breaking point, and even make relationships stronger. Don’t put off what’s difficult now in favor of what will be impossible down the road.

By Joel Peterson