At one point or another, we’ve all lost our cool at work. Perhaps you pulled an all-nighter to finish a project, only to feel distressed when it was criticized by a client. Or maybe a coworker failed to pull their weight and dumped their work on you at the last minute. These everyday workplace aggravations can make your blood boil.
But difficult conversations tend to be the most stressful of all. You know them well. These are the types of talks that require you to deliver bad news or negative feedback, make a demand such as asking for a raise or more responsibility, apologize for a mistake, or otherwise have a conversation that you dread.
When we anticipate or have difficult conversations, our emotions are often triggered. The mere thought of conflict and confrontation may cause you anxiety, especially if you are someone who considers themselves to be a kind-hearted peace-keeper. Even if you’re frustrated with the situation, you may fear upsetting your boss or disappointing your team, for example.
Difficult conversations intensify our emotionality because our minds perceive them as a threat. To the primal parts of our emotional brain, the worry of being disliked or losing standing is akin to being ousted from the group and causes real pain. In fact, science shows the brain makes no distinction between social exclusion and physical pain, which is why rejection—or the anticipation of it—hurts so much.
During a difficult conversation, you may find your heart starts racing and your breathing picks up. When your fight-or-flight response takes hold, it’s all the more likely you’ll get upset. Leaders and professionals who identify as sensitive strivers—which I define as high achievers who are also highly sensitive—are even more likely to have more intense, complex emotional responses during difficult conversations because of their genetic wiring. It’s not uncommon for my coaching clients to say they have cried during a meeting or gone down an emotional spiral after receiving an unanticipated ask from their boss. These same clients tell me that they wish they could get a better grip on their responses and show up with greater calm, command, and executive presence.
To clarify, becoming emotional during a difficult conversation is a normal stress response. But a crucial part of emotional intelligence is emotion regulation, or the skill of being able to adjust how you internally modulate and externally express your emotions in a way that’s rooted in integrity and makes you feel proud. Without this skill, you’re not able to articulate yourself well in the moment or put your best foot forward.
Here’s how to keep the flood of emotions at bay during difficult conversations so you can show up as your best self.
Strategize your approach
Difficult conversations are inherently uncertain (“Will she laugh at my request?” “What if I offend them?”). Lessen the ambiguity (and the emotionality that accompanies it) by outlining key points you’d like to hit during the conversation. Make these high-level, headline-like markers that can guide you if you lose your train of thought. Don’t fall into the perfectionist trap of creating a detailed script to recite verbatim. Not only does this squeeze out authenticity, but it also will leave you more stressed if the conversation doesn’t go as planned.
Likewise, determine what you want to get out of the conversation. Your goal should be realistic and achievable. Planning to “win” is a losing battle. Focus on an objective that’s within your control, such as getting your point across or stating your point concisely.
Rally your resilience
Whenever I have a client struggling with emotions ahead of a difficult conversation, I ask them to tell me about the three hardest things they’ve overcome. They don’t need to be directly related to the situation at hand. Simply reminding yourself that you can rise above challenges gives you the confidence to be greater than your fears and apprehensions.
Positive visualization can also be effective. Research shows that the mind cannot distinguish between imagination and reality. When you imagine yourself appearing cool and collected during a difficult conversation, it triggers the same cascade of neurochemicals, regardless of whether you are thinking about the past, present, or future. Picture yourself in the heat of confrontation. How do you look, feel, and sound when you are at your best?
Approach the conversation as a collaboration
Let’s say you need to speak with your direct report about a major mistake they made. Your first impulse may be to angrily fling blame-based accusations such as “How could you let this happen?” But your intense emotions could cause your report to retreat or get defensive, eliminating the opportunity to problem-solve.
Diffuse the emotional charge by listening first. Ask open-ended questions such as:
- What led up to this?
- What have you tried to resolve the situation so far?
- What is your action plan?
Listening and asking questions gives you the chance to gather more information while also providing room for you to pause, breathe, and collect yourself so you can respond diplomatically.
Try a mantra
Studies show that repeating a single word or phrase silently to yourself can quiet your mind. In other words, creating a mantra can be useful to calm the internal judgments that lead to strong emotions during difficult conversations. Many of my clients devise short, anchoring phrases such as:
- Stay neutral.
- This will pass.
- I can handle feeling uncomfortable.
- All I can do is my best.
- I am in control of how I feel.
Beware of emotional contagion
Humans naturally synchronize with the emotions of others around them. Sensitive strivers, in particular, have more active mirror neurons, which make them more adept at empathizing, but also more likely to absorb negativity, particularly during tense situations.
To avoid taking on your counterpart’s feelings during a difficult conversation, imagine yourself surrounded by a clear bubble that shields you from their reactions. Claire Wasserman, founder of Ladies Get Paid, once shared with me that she envisions painting her body in gold armor before entering a tough negotiation.
Finally, my clients find it helpful to separate content from delivery. Pay special attention to the exact words coming out of someone’s mouth and not their tone or your interpretation of what’s been said. Stay grounded in objectivity, and you can bring your best to the table.
Melody Wilding, LMSW, is an executive coach and the author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.