Five ideas to save conversations that go sour

Said John Steinbeck, “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.” Though he refers to war, there is wisdom here about the conflicts in our daily lives. Our response to negative situations is habitual. It stems from patterns we’ve built over time, and broadly falls under avoiding conflict or aggressively marching into it.

But what if we could change the reflexive responses? It would open up a whole field of choices, allowing us to repair relationships and situations. Every person is 75% responsible for how others treat him/ her. So, if we change our response, others will too. As Prof. Kathleen Reardon, Marshall School of Business, says, “It’s possible to learn to treat rude questions as objective queries, find logic in a seemingly ridiculous comment, or respond to an insult as though it were accidental.”

Here’s how, with the ‘R-list’ of tactics:

  • Reframe the context. While locked in a debate, if someone says, “I’m not interested in fighting or arguing with you over this,” it can be hurtful. They might be thinking about the situation as a ‘them vs you’. Shift this by saying, “I don’t think this is a fight. We both have different perspectives, and I want us to be able to express them safely.”
  • Revisit past success. We might have a good relationship with the people we lock horns with. They could be friends or colleagues with whom we have shared past successes. Use the history of positive interactions to find common ground. Say, “We have had a good track record of working together and I’d love to stay true to that.” This will show that you care.
  • Request and pause. When you notice yourself getting agitated and doubting someone’s intention, pause before reacting. Ask, “Could you clarify what you meant just then?” This also gives you a second to calm your mind.
  • Restate negative words. If attacking or being defensive is someone’s style, they may say things like, “You’re wrong,” or “You’re being stupid”. They will blame. “Surely there’s another way to say that,” or “Did you mean what I think I heard?” are useful to encourage a person to reconsider and alter what was said.
  • Renegotiate perceptions. As you assert or even express yourself, it can elicit negative reactions. “You’re being pushy,” or “You’re complicating things for me,” could be common refrains. Reframe them by saying, “I’m determined to achieve a positive outcome, which may come across as being pushy.” Or, “I’m offering more alternatives to the solution.

In essence, these tactics give you a moment before reacting and give the other person a chance to repair a conversation that’s going south. Sometimes, this might be all that’s needed to salvage relationships and keep them healthy.

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