- Once a conversation gets emotional, the topic is no longer important; the goal is lowering the temperature.
- The key is realizing that the conversation is going off course and not pushing harder to make your point.
- Ask about the other's emotions and listen. If you're both upset, take a break and circle back later.
You probably already know something about good communication—not interrupting or looking at your phone, shutting down, or getting angry or defensive. This is about skills, not personality, training yourself to react differently than where you're naturally wired to go. And, like most skills, they take practice.
But another skill often gets overlooked and, in my mind, is probably the most important and challenging one to master—tracking the shifting emotional currents of a conversation. The analogy here is that having a conversation is like driving a car. There are basically two parts to driving a car: knowing where you want to go—the conversation equivalent of knowing the point of the conversation before you start talking—and keeping the conversational car on the road—moving steadily forward. With most couples I see, the conversational car is off the road in two minutes; they get stuck in the mud of arguing over who said what and are emotionally ramping up. They don’t realize they're going into a ditch, nor do they know how to steer the car to stay out of it.
Here’s how to do it.
Realize when you or the other person is getting upset.
Ben makes a face, Cindy starts waving her arm, and Carlos sounds angry. Something is wrong; you’ve said something that hurt the other person’s feelings or stumbled on a painful topic. Or maybe it’s you who is overreacting, but regardless, the emotional climate has changed. The conversational car is starting to swerve. Time to adjust your steering.
Focus on the emotional problem in the room.
While you instinctively would hit the brakes if your car started to swerve, the opposite is what usually happens in conversations. Once a conversation becomes emotional, your natural tendency is likely to push harder to make your point: repeat what you said louder, stack up more evidence to press your case, and argue over who said what. Your emotional brain is telling you that if you can get the other person to understand the facts of what you’re saying and get the story straight, they will see the light and calm down. But all this is like stepping on the gas, increasing the emotional temperature rather than reducing it. Instead, you need to shift the focus from the original topic to the real problem in the room, the rising emotions.
Fix feelings with feelings, not facts.
Stop talking about the topic and talk about the emotional problem in the room: Ben, you just made a face; you seem upset. Cindy, you’re waving your arms; what's wrong? Carlos, you sound angry—did I say something that hurt your feelings? The key is to say this in as calm a voice as possible.
This is where your good listening skills come into play. It's time to hold steady; let the other person vent. Nod your head, make an empathic statement—I can see why that bothers you. If you don’t feed their emotional fire by stacking up evidence or getting angry yourself, the other person will ramp up initially but then begin to calm down as they run out of fuel. If you’re getting frustrated or angry, say so, and then take a time-out: I’m leaving to cool down, but I’ll be back. Again, your goal is to stay out of the weeds of right and wrong but lower the emotional temperature.
Listening doesn't mean you're giving in, nor will you stand there and allow yourself to be an emotional punching bag. If you feel the other person is being abusive, if neither one of you can rein in your emotions despite your efforts, it's time to end the conversation and leave the room. The car is off the road and in a ditch. Time to stop the car.
Get the car back on the road.
Even if you have to stop the conversation, you want, at some point, to get back on the road and get to where you intended to go. This is about circling back, not just making up by mumbling I'm sorry and sweeping the problem under the rug, but by having a productive, problem-solving conversation when you both are cooled off. The key is being absolutely cooled off, even if it takes a couple of days. Let the other person know where you're emotionally at so they're not left wondering.
Be a pro by staying in lockstep.
Moving to the pro, the race-car level of steering a conversation is learning to catch these dynamics as quickly as possible. “Wondering if you’d like to see this movie on Saturday,” you ask your partner, and you get a limp, “Okay.” “I’m wondering if we can shift our supervision time, you ask your boss,” and you get distracted, “Sure.” “Hey, buddy,” you say to your 10-year-old, “the trash needs to go out,” and you get a shrug and sigh. There’s a problem right now in the room. Here’s where you attempt the fine adjustment: "You don’t sound excited about the movie—what’s up?" "Are you really okay about changing the sup time?" "Hey, buddy, why the shrug?"
Tracking the conversation close enough so that you don’t move forward unless the other person agrees is what good salespeople do well: “This car is a bit more expensive but is still under warranty, making it a good deal. What do you think?” and then the salesperson waits: “Okay," you say, "let’s take a look," or "No, our price range is pretty tight.” She doesn’t move forward until there is a solid yes.
Staying in lockstep and addressing the emotional shift usually leads to quick repair: “I’m tired,” says your partner, “how about doing the movie next weekend?” “Sorry, I’m feeling a bit distracted; let me check my schedule,” says your supervisor; “I don’t like always having to do the trash. Why can’t Joey (the younger brother) do it sometimes?” says your son. All good to know.
Again, this is not about personality but about skills. Ready to upgrade your communication skills?
Taibbi, R. (2017). Doing couple therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.