3 Keys to Managing Tough Emotional Conversations

Clients approach me regularly with variations on a theme. The question goes something like this:

“I’ve got a meeting this afternoon with one of my team members and it is not going to be pretty. She’s upset. How do I handle it?

Whether a manager-to-employee conversation, service professional-to-customer conversation, or spouse-to-spouse conversation, the guidance I give is always the same. 1) Acknowledge their emotions; 2) Discuss a plan; 3) Give back some control.

  1. Acknowledge emotions. No interpersonal progress can be made until the upset party feels their emotions are acknowledged. You can discuss solutions and next steps all you want but until the other party feels you understand and acknowledge why they’re upset, you’re just wasting breath.

    Example: “This situation sounds very frustrating for you and I can understand why it would be.”
  2. Plan a solution. Some issues have clear paths to resolution; those are fairly easy to agree on. But what do you say to an employee or customer or spouse when you don’t yet know how to resolve the issue at hand? Discuss a plan for getting there. Example: “I don’t have all of the answers to your questions yet. But I will speak with our business unit leadership throughout the week. I will update you by end of day Friday.”
  3. Give back some control. Emotions are most volatile when people feel vulnerable. Managers tell us  not to worry about organizational changes. Customer service agents tell us not to worry about the same over billing issues happening next month.  Our spouse tells us not to worry – they’ll remember to drop the time-critical paperwork off today. People worry because they have reason to worry. Telling them otherwise gains us nothing. Instead, provide opportunities to engage the other party further in the resolution of the issue at hand.

    Example: “I will share your ideas with our leadership; I encourage you to submit them to the employee feedback mailbox, as well.”

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