Navigating Tough Conversations

7 Things to Say When a Conversation Turns Negative
By Kathleen Kelley Reardon

Every person is at least 75% responsible for how others treat them. Our verbal and nonverbal actions limit or expand the options of others. For example, if someone asks, “How are you?” as he or she walks by, you know better than to turn around and walk with them in order to provide an extensive answer. By continuing to walk past, the person signals that only a nod or brief reply is expected. However, if that person were to stop and look you in the eye when asking the same question, your options change. Their behavior has invited more than a reflexive answer.

We’re all creatures of habit, and communication patterns help us avoid having to think about everything we utter. But when we slip into patterns solely because we’ve failed to develop other response choices, we become predictable. If you are known for a tendency to avoid conflict, for example, others can generate conditions that will cause you to pull back, apologize, or walk away. You abdicate a portion of your 75% responsibility. That’s not good!

But if we have a repertoire of replies and comebacks at our fingertips, we can opt out of predictable patterns. For example, it’s possible to learn to treat some rude questions as objective queries, find some element of logic in a seemingly ridiculous comment, or respond to an insult as though it were accidental. In this way, instead of becoming victimized by habitual patterns, we become arbiters of what happens to us.

Such skill is especially important in harsh political climates where what is said is often not what is meant. Highly political work arenas require a degree of street smarts to survive and thrive. It’s important to know effective ways of responding to tough situations.

What if a person tells you one thing, but then you hear that he or she said something quite different to others? This isn’t uncommon in highly politicized organizations. Should you let it pass? Hold a grudge? Never trust that person again? Address the situation directly? With a repertoire of responses, you have options. You might even be able to prevent such situations from happening to you in the future by selecting an effective response shortly after the initial offense — a response that causes the offending person to think twice next time. Whether you are new to stretching your comeback repertoire or an experienced hand, it’s useful to have various responses readily available. The following “R-List” of categorized tactics can help you do just that. When responding to a potentially negative situation, facility with them can help avoid damage to an important relationship or disarm a threat to your credibility:

Reframe — Cast the issue in a different light. Describe the other person’s words or actions in a way that behooves future interactions. If someone says, “I don’t want to fight about this,” a useful reframe of that comment is, “This is a debate, certainly not a fight. And you’re a good debater, as I recall.”

Rephrase — Say the words in a different, less negative way. Should someone accuse you of having come on too strongly in a meeting, you might reply, “I was passionate.” If you’re described as stubborn, you could say, “I’m very determined when something is important to a successful effort.” Rather than let inaccurate or offensive words pass, suggest replacements.

Revisit — Use an earlier success to redefine a current failure. If the people involved in a conversation have a previous history of positive interactions, it can help to remind them of past success and their ability to find common ground: “We have a good track record working together. No reason to change that now.”

Restate — Clarify or redirect negative wording. Anyone can inadvertently give offense or spark disagreement. At such times, it’s useful to employ one of my favorite strategies: Give them a chance to do the right thing. “Surely there’s another way to say that” or “Did you mean what I think I heard?” are useful ways to encourage a person to reconsider and alter what was said.

Request — Ask a question. When in doubt about a person’s intention, one sensible approach is to check your perceptions by querying them before reacting negatively: “Would you clarify for me what you meant just then?”

Rebalance — Adjust the other person’s power. People cede power unnecessarily when they allow another individual to make them miserable or undermine their work. Often, such power imbalance can be changed. One way is to reduce the impact on you with your attitude — refusing to be upset — or by saying, “Fortunately, I’m not easily offended, especially by one-off situations like this.”

Reorganize — Change the priority of the issues. Direct the conversation away from personal concerns by focusing on process. For example, one comeback might be, “We seem to agree on the what but are having some difficulty with the how.” In this way, you cut the problem in half. The focus is now on only one aspect of what might otherwise appear to be an intractable impasse.

Versatility separates effective communicators from those who are pushed and pulled through conversations — and life. The next time you face what appears to be a roadblock, whether due to offense or confusion, consider the types of comebacks above. Experimentation is the only way to become at least 75% responsible for how we’re treated. Otherwise, we spend much of our days stuck in ruts, being predictable, and getting nowhere. There’s no fun or benefit in that


This piece was originally published by Harvard Business Review.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.