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Can 1 question turn around a negative conversation?

Here are 8 tips for handling emotionally charged situations and transform potentially negative conversations into successes.

8 min read


Two people facing away from each other to illustrate a negative conversation

Pixabay image/SmartBrief illustration

My daughter recently traveled to North Carolina to try her hand at selling pest control. She had an interesting experience talking with people and experiencing rejection firsthand.

One day recently, my daughter knocked on a door and a man answered. (We will call him Gary.) As soon as he opened the door, Gary started yelling and ranting at her. She decided to face his verbal assault quietly and humbly as he berated her. While he was consumed by his own tirade, she decided to wait patiently and confront him when he finished. When Gary finally ceased his attack, she asked if she could ask him a question. He answered affirmatively.

She asked, “Whatever happened that made you this angry?” Gary, stunned, thought and then replied, “I had two door-to-door saleswomen come and bang on my door. They wouldn’t stop banging until I came out. Then they spoke to me very rudely.”

My daughter responded, “I am so sorry for how you were treated. And I would never treat you like that. I am sorry that they did that.” With that she smiled, turned, and began walking down the sidewalk.

Just inside the house, Gary’s wife had been on the phone but had overheard the entire conversation. She came out onto the porch and asked my daughter to stop and to explain what she was selling.

After my daughter explained the purpose of her visit, Gary’s wife asked him if she could buy her pest control services. Gary responded that his wife could make the purchase if that was what she really wanted to do. They spent time talking and reviewing the program. Finally, my daughter left and continued down the street.

Gary must have had a change of heart. Having previously been a chef, he went into his kitchen after my daughter left and made her some hors d’oeuvres. He then took the snacks and a bottle of water and drove around the neighborhood looking for my daughter until he found her. He gave her the treat he had prepared and then left.

When she related this experience to me, I was proud of the way my daughter handled the situation and the result she was able to achieve.

Can one question, sincerely and honestly asked, change the entire dynamic of a negative conversation? Yes, it can.

Here are some suggestions for ways you can respond if you should find yourself in a similar situation.

Emotion is not the message

When people become emotional and aggressive, they are truly upset about something which may or may not be related to your negative conversation. A person’s emotional reaction often obscures the real message. That message is literally hidden behind the façade of the emotion. When that happens, the challenge becomes to understand what is fueling the emotional response.

Ask questions that require a thoughtful response

When my daughter asked, “Whatever happened to make you this angry?” he had to stop, revisit the circumstances of the event, and reflect on his feelings and the thoughts associated with that situation. This requires the presence of mind to compose such a question and to ask it without being pulled into the other person’s drama.

You might try identifying beforehand a few thought-provoking questions. Some of my favorites are, “Did you notice what just happened?” And “Was that what you were intending to create?” Notice that both questions require reflection and quieting one’s mind before answering. This process interrupts the emotional spiral and often defuses a person’s charged response.

Listen to what isn’t being said

In my daughter’s experience with Gary, you’ll recall that he described the pounding on his door and how he was spoken to. Each of the negative behaviors that he mentioned can easily be categorized as issues of disrespect. He expected the two saleswomen to knock or ring the bell and to speak to him in a respectful tone and manner.

Because of his recent negative experience, he recalled the situation and how it made him feel, which he then projected onto my daughter.

Don’t take others’ behavior personally

When others become emotional, their emotion says more about them than it does about you. Gary’s emotional response had its genesis in his previous experience. All my daughter did was knock on his door and all his thoughts and feelings from the past came pouring out. Luckily, my daughter didn’t get drawn into his poor behavior and respond likewise. Rather, she stood there calmly and listened, thinking about what she would say in response.

This is difficult to do given that Gary was just as disrespectful to my daughter as the two previous saleswomen had been to him. Losing your cool and blasting someone with your emotions will not create a respectful interchange nor increase understanding.

Examine your mental models

We all have mental models or assumptions of how things are and the way the world works. Those predetermined mental models often lead to quick reactions that fuel an emotional reaction. Gary had a negative mental model of salespeople based on his recent experience.

Whatever my daughter’s mental model of Gary was, or men like him, she was able to suspend it, calmly listen to what he said, and select a question to ask to understand his behavior.

Use your feelings as a cue to your thoughts

For every feeling, there is a thought that fuels it. If you can consciously notice your feelings in the moment they occur, you can uncover the thinking behind the emotion. If Gary could have done this, he might have asked himself, “What am I feeling?” Answering his own question, he might have responded that he was angry. Then, “Why am I feeling this way?” He may have thought that he hates to be confronted by disrespectful and rude salespeople.

Perhaps in the moment, he could have stopped and asked himself if the person knocking on his door was rude and disrespectful. By challenging his thinking, he might have derailed his growing negative emotional response.

Listen and look for values

Negative emotional responses are the result of violated values. We are not used to listening to the negative from the perspective of the positive. For example, Gary’s complaint about disrespectful and rude salespeople was really a cry for respectful and polite behavior.

Rather than listening and looking for the positive, we usually get caught up in the emotions of the moment and respond in kind or remove ourselves from the interaction. Although my daughter said she was somewhat shocked and bewildered by Gary’s response, she had the presence of mind to move past those feelings and listen.

Taking the time to listen in this way will keep you mentally engaged and avoid the temptation to become emotional yourself.

Apologize if appropriate

My daughter’s apology was not for anything she did, but rather an acknowledgement of Gary’s experience and human dignity. For example, when she said, “I am so sorry for how you were treated. And I would never treat you like that. I am sorry that they did that,” she is affirming his feelings and the importance of treating him with respect. That statement served to underscore the value she placed on him.

Although her statements were more of a declaration of empathy, any time you do or say something that may cause offense, the quickest way to defuse an escalating emotional situation is by acknowledging what you said or did and apologize. Doing so usually serves to restore rationality to what was a negative conversation.

It is not easy for us to stay cool when we are attacked in an emotional manner. However, being respectful and thoughtfully engaged allows us to manage ourselves and the situation and guide the conversation toward a more positive outcome.

By practicing these suggestions the next time you find yourself in an emotionally charged situation, you will be able to transform a potentially negative outcome into a positive one.

John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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