Difficult conversations

Ep 23: How to manage your emotions in difficult conversations: strategies to stay calm and collected

November 8, 2023

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I'm Sarah — leadership and communication mentor.  I'm here to help you grow your leadership, resilience, and influence. 

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If you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a tough conversation with emotions running high, and you weren’t sure why or what to do about it (and well, let’s face it, haven’t we all?) then this episode is for you. 

In this episode, I answer one of the most frequently asked questions: How can I manage my emotions in a difficult conversation?

Tune in to:

  • Understand the core reasons that make conversations challenging.
  • Learn how to prepare for courageous conversations.
  • Discover three effective strategies for managing emotions in the moment.

Want to listen? Just click play below!

Prefer to read? Check out the article below.

How to manage your emotions in difficult conversations: strategies to stay calm and collected

“How can I manage myself in difficult or uncomfortable conversations?”

This question is important and one that I am frequently asked. Like leadership, communication starts with self; every conversation that we have starts with a conversation with ourselves. We want to enter into a conversation feeling comfortable and confident, even if the situation is one with potential conflict or we just know it will be uncomfortable. 

What makes some conversations challenging? 

Have you ever thought about why a particular conversation was so challenging? There are five core reasons why this might be. Firstly, a conversation can often be high stakes which, in a school, might be around safeguarding, bullying, or attainment. Secondly, there are often challenging emotions involved when a difficult conversation is needed. You might need to manage your own emotions, support someone else to manage theirs, and ensure that your emotions are expressed appropriately. Thirdly, we often enter into conversations where there are opposing views with an ‘I’m right – You’re wrong’ position which can cause friction. There can also be unmet expectations, from either side. I think most difficult conversations actually come from this – where expectations somewhere along the line (whatever they might be) have not been met. The final reason is historical baggage. Meaning, if you’ve had a previous conversation with someone that hasn’t gone well, you’re likely to take that into the next conversation you have with them. 

These core reasons can lead to fear and anxiety. The fear might be associated with making something work or not being able to manage the conversation or situation effectively. It could also be about controlling your own or the other person’s emotions, or simply not knowing what to say. The response from the other person can also be something that causes worry. It’s important to recognise that fear is a really powerful emotion (take a look at podcast Episode 10 ‘Building courage: The 7 muscles to strengthen for courageous leadership’ where I share some strategies that might influence how you think about fear). 

We can’t ignore our emotions and enter into conversations using just logic. When you try to suppress emotions a conversation becomes even more challenging because our emotions (including fear) are always present, powerful, and hard to handle. You can’t just ‘leave them at the door’ because courageous conversations involve both reason and emotion. Emotion is a felt experience – we actually feel the emotion in our bodies and they can have an immediate impact on our physiology: we blush, we laugh, we feel butterflies in our tummy. When we feel the emotion, if we try to control and suppress the physiological response, it’s then harder to concentrate on the key message of the conversation.

Emotions also affect our thinking. When experiencing emotions such as disappointment or anger we can get really stuck with them which mean negative thoughts can emerge, such as criticising ourselves or blaming others. At this point, our cognitive, thinking brain shuts down impacting our overall thinking. 

Emotions also affect our behaviour as they motivate us to take action. If we’re happy to see someone we might get a physical impulse to hug them. If we’re angry, we might get an impulse to hit someone (not recommended!) or move away. We really can’t ignore our emotions and recognising that they affect our bodies, thoughts and behaviours is really powerful. In a conversation we want to be at our best – using our thinking brain – so managing our emotions is crucial.

How do you prepare for a courageous conversation? 

Careful planning and preparation are essential to managing our emotions. It will help you and the other person/people feel calmer and more confident and helps to create safety which is an important factor in a challenging conversation. There are 10 questions which I have found to be effective in preparing for a conversation. We’ll use ‘Bob’ as the example colleague who I feel is not being respectful to me in meetings and therefore a courageous conversation is needed to explore this. 

1. What’s my ideal outcome?

I want Bob to respect me in meetings, but this is quite vague. So, what does this actually look like? What does respect look like? It could mean that he listens to me without interrupting, not mutter comments under his breath, or perhaps be on his phone under the table. At this stage you’re not trying to decide what you’ll say, simply get to the crux of this question for you. Be as specific and as clear as possible. 

2. What’s my core message?

With Bob it might be that I’m feeling rubbish about the situation, I’m not feeling valued and I want to find a resolution with him. Clarity is important. If you have 3 to 5 things you want to say, you will get lost and so will the other person. So, pinpoint the most important thing.

3. What data do I have to outline the issue?

Or, if I don’t have any, what data do I need to gather? Is there a specific meeting that has taken place where you considered Bob to be particularly rude? Again, be as specific as you can be and move away from generalising – saying ‘Oh Bob, you’re always disrespectful’ is not helpful. 

4. What questions do I want to ask?

Rather than saying to Bob, ‘why are you so disrespectful’ it’s better to re-word it to something like ‘I’m curious to know what’s going on’ or ‘I’m curious to know your thinking behind this’. This avoids the ‘why’ which can often spark defensiveness. 

5. What might their perspective be?

Here I try to step into the other person’s shoes – it can be really helpful to shift your thinking. 

6. What assumptions might I be making about their intentions?

This question is super powerful. Try to name at least three. We make assumptions all the time about somebody’s intentions and we conflate impact with intention. Bob’s behaviour made me feel rubbish and I’m assuming that he intended to create that impact with me – here, I’m judging him by impact, rather than his intention. 

7. What questions might they ask me, or what might they say?

Just jot down a few thoughts. 

8. What might my responses be?

Again, just jot down some ideas. The more you pre-think, the more confident you will feel. 

9. What are my emotions?

Question what’s going on for you at the moment about you, about the person, about the thing that is happening. What’s going on? Is it fear? If it is, what is it about exactly? What are the emotions you’re feeling? 

10. What might my triggers be?

Have a plan for if these come up in a conversation. If the other person has said something that you don’t agree with, how might you respond to that? 

These 10 questions are really helpful for conversations that are causing you anxiety and those potentially conflictual ones. 

Three strategies for managing in-the-moment emotions

You probably know how to handle a tense situation intelligently, but do you know how to do it fast? Usually, when we have a stressful encounter we can go home, calm down, slow our pulse and start to breathe more slowly. After a few hours, you gain enough self-control to start thinking through your options. And, with more time you realise what would have been the smart thing to do. By that point, it’s often too late. We want to try to speed up getting back in control and managing our emotions in the moment. 

Here are three strategies which can help. 

1. Notice, name, and navigate

Notice where you feel an emotion. Is it fear, anxiety, or anger? Remembering that energy is felt, do you feel it in your chest? Are there butterflies in your tummy? Is your heart beating a little faster? Does your breath become more shallow? Do you start to speak from your throat rather than your diaphragm? Noticing builds awareness and when we notice our physical reactions first it gives us a little more time to respond. 

Next, name the emotion and get curious. Think, what am I feeling? You might think to yourself ‘I am feeling angry’, ‘I am feeling frustrated’, or ‘I am feeling scared’. Notice here, it’s ‘I am feeling…’ not ‘I am…’. This tweak in language helps to separate you from the emotion and engage your thinking brain. 

There are two strategies to the navigate part.

The first, foundational one is grounding and breathing. This starts to clear stress chemicals from your body and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing is always available to us. You simply sit or stand wherever you are having the conversation, make sure both feet are placed on the floor – really ground down, keep your body as upright as possible, keep your weight as evenly distributed as possible, and then visualise that you’ve got a deflated ball in your tummy. Breathe in slowly through your nose visualising the air inflating the ball. Hold it for a second and then breathe slowly out. Repeat this 4 to 6 times until you sense your body starting to relax. When your body relaxes, the mind becomes calmer and increasingly more rational. It’s important to practise this so that you build the habit. Just take 30 seconds to practise breathing like this during the day – maybe when you wake up, at the beginning or end of a car journey, or at the start of a meeting. 

The second strategy to navigate is to have a mantra. My personal favourite when I am really triggered, grumpy or angry is ‘this is an opportunity for poise’. And, if I notice I’m feeling judgemental I say ‘how fascinating’. This moves me into curiosity and more positive emotions. As I’m breathing, I repeat the mantra in my head and this helps me to engage my thinking brain. 

2. Hydrate

This is simple but effective. Some studies show that being dehydrated can increase the stress hormone cortisol. So drinking water can help keep stress levels down. Hydrating can also help your voice to stay as confident and as resonant as possible when your nerves are potentially impacting your breathing which can affect your voice. 

3. Slow things down

You can do this by leaving a silence. This might take practice as when our emotions run high, or we’re nervous, a natural response is to move more quickly and fill silences. Just practise leaving longer and longer silences in your everyday conversations until you get more comfortable with it. This is quite hard to start with, but you’ll quickly get used to it and be able to extend the silences even more. 

You can also slow down your speech. When we’re nervous, we tend to speak more rapidly which makes us more nervous and can be disconcerting for the person you are speaking with. So, think carefully about your speed. A great way to practise this is to notice the rhythm of your speech when doing different things such as walking and having a chat, or speaking with friends and family. Notice when you’re feeling the most relaxed because this is the speed and rhythm that will help you to feel the most calm and confident in a conversation. 

Next time you’re faced with a difficult conversation I hope these questions and strategies enable you to stay calm and collected. Hopefully, you will feel a greater sense of control, which will ultimately lead to a successful and much more comfortable conversation and outcome.