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How to Stabilize Emotions in Difficult Conversations

Using your emotions to keep conversations on track.

Key points

  • Emotions can support or spoil the chance to achieve a satisfying outcome in a conversation, even more than your words.
  • You can't stop emotional reactions, but you can choose what to feel next.
  • Before you engage in a conversation, determine one or two emotions you want to remember to feel when the conversation feels unsettling.
Source: VitalikRadko/Depositphotos

The emotions you bring into and maintain throughout a conversation will support or spoil the chance to achieve a satisfying outcome. Your emotions can open or close the minds of the people you are with.

With best intentions, you will have emotional reactions in difficult conversations. Your power to move things forward depends on how quickly you choose what to feel instead.

You can’t blame others for your emotional reactions. Your brain throws up protective armor when it perceives a threat to your dignity, identity, and personal needs. You may sit and stew with resentment, or rush to defensively explain yourself, or just say you are sorry and ignore the conflict thinking it will go away. Your pattern of reactivity is deeply ingrained in your brain.

Emotional reactions start in your body and then distort your words and actions. If you don’t catch your emotions at first "twitch," they make decisions for you. You then justify your reactions instead of consciously choosing.

Emotional Power

Automatic patterns of behavior are difficult to override. You must develop emotional self-awareness to take back control of your brain. You can overpower your brain’s habits by noticing your reactions and then breathing in the emotions you want to feel. Only then can you see others in a new light, activate your curiosity instead of judgment, and appreciate their perspective even when it is different from yours.

Once they feel you are listening and respect their ideas, they might open up to hear your story and desires. Respectful, curious listening is the only way to guide a difficult conversation around the potholes of disagreement.

Haim G. Ginott, author of Between Parent and Child, said:

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.

When you choose how you want to feel, people feel your generative power. If not, your emotions weaken your impact. You can inspire feelings of possibility or fan the flames of discord.

What Triggers Your Autopilot

Suppressing emotions doesn’t help. People still feel the negative energy. When they sense you are stuffing your feelings, they don't feel safe being fully open and honest with you. You have to fully shift your emotional state for them to trust you.

Your emotional triggers are based on unmet social needs. From the time you were born, you repeated behavior that brought you positive attention, love, and/or safety. You learned how to get what you needed first from your family. Then, as you began navigating life beyond your family, you learned what you needed to feel confident or comfortable in your social groups. Getting your needs met fueled your personal or professional successes. These repeated behaviors became your personal strengths.

When you use your strengths—what has helped you navigate life so far—you expect to get what you need. You may want your work valued, you may want to feel respected, you may want to follow ordered routines, you may want your intelligent contribution recognized, or you may just want to be seen and understood. You can find a list of typical emotional triggers to help you identify your social needs in this post. When your social expectations are not met, you react anywhere along the continuum from visible anger to shutting down.

Think about the last time you felt irritation, anxiety, or disappointment while interacting with others. What did you expect to get from a friend or colleague that was withheld or disregarded? Did you not feel valued? Did you fear they didn’t really need you? What about when you led a team meeting or coached a new boss and it didn’t go as you had hoped? Were their reactions dismissive? Consider what your brain thought you were losing so you might be more objective with your reactions in the future.

Don’t be embarrassed or angry about your impulse to defend yourself, convince others, or shut down. No matter how emotionally mature you think you are, your brain will prompt reactions before your “higher self” has a chance to intervene.

Exercising Emotional Choice

Because of your brain’s quick reaction time, the skill is not to stop yourself from reacting. You want to develop your ability to quickly shift your emotions following a reaction.

Forgive yourself for being an imperfect human. Only then can you begin to notice your emotions without being distracted by being angry with yourself.

Noticing you are reacting is the first step. Your self-awareness gives you the freedom to choose how you want to feel. Then you can breathe the feeling into your body so the shift is complete.

  1. Choose how you want to feel before the conversation. Choose one or two words that represent how you want to feel when you enter and interact. Do you want to feel calm and courageous, caring and curious, or calm and confident? These will be your keywords during the conversation to shift your feelings back to your desired emotional state if you feel yourself reacting.
  2. Pay attention to your body. Do you hold irritation in your stomach, shoulders, or jaw? When you are anxious, does your heart beat faster and the back of your neck heat up? During the conversation, notice any tension in your body. The quicker you notice your reactions, the quicker you can shift them.
  3. Relax. Breathe and exhale to release the tension. Let the blood flow more freely to your brain.
  4. Choose. Fill your body with the emotional keywords you chose before the conversation. Allow yourself to feel the shift before you speak.

You can practice these steps at any conversation or situation that annoys or frightens you.

Developing the habit of noticing and shifting your emotions takes time. Practice makes you competent, not perfect. Before long you will be the master of your emotions and can use them to keep conversations moving forward from the start to a satisfying end.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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