When the red mist descends: how to keep your cool in a difficult conversation

Have you been putting off a difficult conversation with a colleague? Perhaps you have a burning issue to address but you are worried about managing your own reactions to what you might hear.

Most of us have had those moments when the ‘red mist’ descends. Someone says something that triggers a reaction in us – anger, shock, upset – which throws us off balance. Our thoughts go awry and sometimes our words… in directions we may later regret!

Sound familiar? Our fears that a conversation might follow that path can deter us from having it. It is not unusual for clients in mediation to explain how these kinds of concerns have got in the way of an early resolution to an inter-personal problem: “When she raises her voice I just can’t think straight.” Or “I know I’ll lose my cool if he says I’m unprofessional one more time.”

A simple technique

In these situations, here’s something you could try or encourage others to try. The ‘4Rs’ is a simple technique we use as mediators.

Even we as neutral parties in a difficult conversation sometimes need to take steps to manage ourselves. We may hear something which triggers an emotional memory or offends our values. I used it recently when one participant seemed to take delight in the distress displayed by his colleague. It helped me keep my focus and the process on track.

The technique has the effect of slowing things down in the moment. It gives you, and hopefully the other person, a moment to take a breath. It helps you to think more dispassionately about what is going on and to keep the conversation going calmly.

The Four Rs
  1. Relax: recognise what you are feeling.

Take a slow breath and let go of areas of tension in your body eg drop your shoulders gently. Calming your physical response can help you feel a better sense of control.

  1. Respect: model the respect you feel you deserve.

Show that you are listening by giving the other person your full attention. Be mindful of making assumptions about what’s been said. If necessary, reflect what they have said and check it out with a question. “Am I right that you are saying….?”. Avoid starting or joining in a blame game. For example, instead of “You’re so rude!” try stating what you need: “I need this to be a respectful conversation”.

  1. Reflect: remind yourself of your goal for this conversation and stick to it.

It’s easy to get side-tracked when emotions are high. Focus on what you need to achieve in the conversation. Try to work out and address what the other person needs in this moment too. Do they need time to speak? Or to know they’ve been heard? If necessary, take time out. It’s fine to say “Actually, I’m not sure about what you just said and I’d like to think before I reply”.

  1. Respond: keep things constructive to give yourself the best chance of a good outcome.

Focusing on the future is helpful here. Explain what you need and why. Even if you think a demand is justified, expressing it as a clear positive request instead may get a better result. “It’s difficult for us to make progress if you keep interrupting. Could you wait until I have finished what I need to say?”. If appropriate, invite the other person to do the same of you: “What will help you.. [to make the change requested]?”.

It may be that to keep things constructive, your best move is to end the conversation for now. If you feel that either of you is not capable of a calm dialogue at that moment, be upfront. We’re all human. Suggest you come back to it (and be sure to do that in a timely fashion) when you’ve both had the chance to calm down, reflect and can continue.

 3 tips for difficult conversations 

If we need to ‘steel’ ourselves for a conversation it can be tempting to dive in when we’re feeling sufficiently brave. Before you do, to give yourself the best chance of success, take a few moments… and then a few moments more:

  1. Plan it 

You know there may be sticky moments in these kinds of conversations so give it some thought. Choose an appropriate time and place – when things are calm and in private, of course. Be clear in your own mind what you need to achieve and why it’s important.

The ‘why’ may be about the impact on you, other colleagues, clients or other stakeholders. Or it may be about achieving business objectives. Be ready to explain, with concrete examples of the problem, without exaggerating.

  1. Keep it balanced

In order to get what you want, make sure you are maintaining a balance. That means listening as much as you are speaking, so that you both have the benefit of clarity.

Listen to their views and the reasons for them, even if you don’t agree with them. Expect them to do the same for you. Then you will both have a better understanding on which to build.

  1. Say what needs to be said

If the other person seems upset it can be particularly difficult to raise that tricky issue, but it will be better to deal with it. In these situations, an expression of empathy can go a long way, eg: “I can see this is difficult for you.”

However, do say what needs to be said. To keep things balanced, you can put positives around it eg. “I noticed that you did X really well and would like to agree with you how to get Y to the same great level.” But be careful not to sugar the pill too heavily. The other person needs to be clear what the problem is and why it needs to be addressed. Make clear any expectations and seek their input to the solutions where appropriate.

Finally, many people find it uncomfortable having these kinds of ‘head-on’ conversations. Approaching them with a mind-set that accepts problems or conflicts in the workplace as inevitable and best dealt with quickly, helps. So does a constructive approach that allows them (and you!) to learn from the situation and move forward.

It’s much better to have what may feel like a difficult conversation now, than a full-blown situation to unpick later. Planning your approach and being able to manage your own responses in the moment, will give you confidence to do it well.

If you are needing an expert, neutral third party to help sort out a conflict situation that is proving difficult to resolve, feel free to contact us. We’re happy to talk it through to see whether mediation can help.

colleagues in a workplace, three, diversityImage of three owls. Collaborative owls are one of five conflict styles in teh Thomas-Kilmann matrix