8 ways to defuse a tense conversation

Many people avoid difficult or awkward conversations because they are afraid of upsetting their colleagues. These conversations sometimes push us out of our comfort zone, and get in the way of decision making.

But there are ways to have them effectively.

Here are eight ways to strategically avoid any feelings of resentment and keep moving forward during difficult conversations, executive coach Monique Valcour writes for the Harvard Business Review.

1. Think of the person as a partner. During a negotiation or some other difficult conversation, it can be easy to think of the other person as only the opposition. However, Valcour suggests changing your attitude: you should think of it as you're both trying to solve the same problem. This can bring down the tension and encourage your conversation partner to respond more calmly.

2. Focus on learning, not persuading. When your only goal in the conversation is to convince the other person that you're right, that other person is likely to get defensive and double down on his or her perspective. Instead, Valcour recommends that you focus on learning about their point of view. You may think you understand their opinion already, but often, simply listening to them can help you empathize more.

3. Be open about objectives. Being forthcoming in the beginning about your intentions can go a long way. Valcour recommends you share your desired outcome and purpose.

4. Don't assume anything. Valcour notes that people often attribute terrible intentions to others—and respond defensively to what they assume the other person is thinking. But, she writes, not only do these assumptions often turn out to be wrong, but they can also prevent you from fully understanding the facts.

5. Ask questions that show curiosity, not hostility. Valcour warns against loaded questions such as, "You don't want to become known as the difficult person in the office, do you?" Statements like these show that you may not be willing to hear the other person's perspective, she writes. Instead, show a genuine curiosity to understand how they see the situation.

6. Take responsibility for mistakes. Instead of only telling the other person what they have done wrong, Valcour writes that you must acknowledge how your actions may have contributed to the problem, too.

7. Avoid poor communication tactics. John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has found four communication mistakes that instantly derail a conversation: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Valcour recommends discussing these four bad tactics with your team and asking everyone to hold everyone else accountable for avoiding them in conversations.

8. Take constructive criticism and use it. "We tend to reject information that threatens our identity," Valcour writes, and that information most often comes in the form of criticism from others. To take the sting out of criticism, Valcour suggests focusing on the future instead of the past. She recommends telling others your future goals and asking for their input on what you need to do to achieve those goals (Valcour, Harvard Business Review, 5/22).

How to cultivate strong university leaders


Next in Today's Briefing

5 reasons for "administrative bloat"

Next Briefing

  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague