By Shane Long, M.A., LMFT, M.Div.
Imagine this scenario; two individuals are both talking about a task that was to be completed by one of them as requested by the other individual. Suddenly however, the discussion becomes much more than a simple conversation. This kind of discussion could take place almost anywhere and with almost anyone. It could take place in your home with your significant other or child, at your work place with a co-worker, or even during a trip home to visit your parents or siblings. You know the kind of discussion, the kind that quickly moves from a talk about an event that’s just occurred to a heated exchange about who said what, who did what, who meant what, and how everyone feels about what happened. The following dialogue is an example of such a conversation when things are reaching a point of really become heated. Let’s peek into this conversation and hear what each participant has to say:
“Look, I understand what you did but that’s not the point. The point is that you didn’t do what I asked you to do and that bothers me. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
“Well you don’t think your response bothers me? I was trying to be helpful but instead of gratitude for my effort I only get told that I was wrong in what I did.
You know how that makes me feel? It doesn’t make me feel happy at all.”
“Wait, don’t turn this back on you. I’m trying to make a point here, and besides I didn’t mean to hurt you by what I said. I was just trying to explain my side of the story, what I wanted accomplished all along.”
“Well you did hurt me and right now I don’t even care about what you wanted because you obviously don’t seem to care about what I’m saying right now.”
“I give up! You obviously don’t understand me!”
We’ve all experienced conversations like these, and they are never easy. Whether they are with family, friends, or co-workers, these kinds of conversations are difficult and usually lead to anyone involved feeling like they’ve been hurt and misunderstood. How do we get past these discussion roadblocks? How do we get to a point of trying to hear each other, listen to each other, and understand each other when so many emotions are involved? No doubt, it’s difficult…but not impossible. With a little patience, a little courage, and a little practice, even conversations that are on the path to emotional battlefields can be turned around towards discussions that eventually bring two people closer together while still getting the problem resolved.
Here are five steps to consider taking to help you become more adept at managing these kinds of emotionally charged scenarios:
- Recognize the discussion has become an emotional one, and that you in fact have become emotionally charged.
- This sounds easier than it actually is for many of us. We tend to focus on another’s emotions and remain blind to what’s happening to us internally. This needs to change if we want to learn how to manage our emotions during conflicts.
- Ask for a time-out of 5-10 minutes to cool down if possible and don’t forget to return to the discussion if a time-out is agreed upon.
- Doing this allows you to cool down your emotions before they fully take over your actions and words in ways you may regret later.
- During the time-out, attempt to soothe yourself with some deep-breathing, reflective prayer, or simple stretching exercises.
- Doing these activities engages the human ability to soothe ourselves; a very important step in negotiating heated discussions.
- Before you return to the discussion, tell yourself that both you and the other individual have valuable and valid perspectives to add to the discussion.
- Thinking in terms of ‘who is right and who is wrong’ will inevitably derail any attempts to resolve a problem discussion; better to acknowledge that both sides bring important perspectives to the conversation and try to work out a solution with all information on the table.
- When returning to the problem discussion, acknowledge and make repairs as necessary for anything said or done that may have caused harmed during the initial discussion.
- Even without intent of doing harm, people can be wounded during emotional discussions and problems have a better chance of being resolved, and the relationship being maintained, if these wounds are acknowledged and dealt with openly.
These steps may seem simple when read aloud, but for many of us it takes a good amount of practice, patience with ourselves and others, and more practice to develop the kind of ability to manage emotionally charged discussions well. The good news is, no matter how strong or weak we may feel we are at managing these kinds of conversations, with intent, practice, and compassion towards ourselves as we grow in these kinds of relationship areas, anyone can improve their ability to communicate and be understood!