The Takeaway: Difficult, high-stress conversations can be addressed using negotiation principles. Buy yourself time, acknowledge concerns, gather more information, and diffuse the situation.
Take Action: Just once today, ask an open-ended question to get more information before responding. As with anything, these skills take time and practice to develop. Start small now for long-term success.
When people think negotiations, they often think sales, law, contracts, and other back-and-forth transactions. Negotiation is just about deals, right? Wrong. Negotiation principles apply to navigating conflicts and disputes, too.
In difficult, high-stress conversations, it’s really important to know what not to say, because the wrong cues will fan the flames and erode the productivity of the conversation.
Before we get into it, take a second and think. Is the overall goal to personally win the encounter? Or would you rather get to a place of mutual understanding and collaboration?
Quick Hint: If your goal is to achieve a personal victory, you might want to look into some conflict coaching for personal and professional development. It’ll make you a better communicator, leader, and negotiator.
Don’t Go in Unprepared
Whether it’s your boss or a family member, you probably have a sense for the person’s mood. If you can figure ahead of time that it’s going to get rocky, take time to mentally prepare. If you’re low on energy, grab a healthy snack. If you know what ticks the person off, consciously plan to avoid those subject areas. Don’t have to jump through hoops; just don’t poke the bear!
Don’t Commit (at least not right away)
It might be tempting to automatically say “How can I help you?” And that’s a perfectly normal response. As people, we don’t like conflict and want to do what we can to avoid or reduce it. But be careful! Without any information on the deeper issue, you might get requisitioned for something you never meant to sign up for.
What are you so mad about? What’s the big deal? What’s got you bent out of shape?
These aren’t legitimate questions. You aren’t fooling anyone. They’re escalators. You usually know why the other person is mad (or at least have some idea). Just for asking, you’ll probably get an earful that you really didn’t want.
Remember the last time someone asked you this type of question? Did you calm down? Did a lightbulb go off, and all of a sudden, you were able to clearly articulate the problem? I’m guessing not.
In fact, don’t give any response. Buy yourself time. More time = more distance = more options. Stepping out or leaving the room can be helpful. But it isn’t always possible. For example, you can’t just walk out on your boss, can you?
But you can create some mental and emotional space, just by taking a deep breath. Instead of a gut reaction, try a measured response.
Putting it into Action:
[Don’t React] Take a deep breath and think for a moment. Just one moment’s pause can make the critical difference. Think: What emotion am I seeing? Can I phrase it on the lighter side? Your momentary pause won’t look as awkward as it feels. And your calm response is well worth the short wait.
[Don’t Escalate] “I understand that you’re really frustrated over _______.”
That was an easy question to ask, requiring no knowledge or experience with whatever actually has them upset. It lacks judgement and doesn’t condemn the person for his or her emotions.
[Don’t Commit] “Can you describe the issue more specifically?”
Here, you aren’t committed to any specific action. But you are gathering critical information that can help you decide where you might assist or whether you should commit.
Once the issue is articulated, you’re in a better position to explore options. However, buy yourself more time. If the person is still amped up, it will be difficult to continue a productive conversation. Once you’ve deflected the initial onslaught, you can consider putting the problem off.
“I understand that you’re concerned about _________. Would you like to set up a time to talk about whether [I, my team, my department, my company, etc] can support you?”
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