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Effective Leadership: Keeping Your Cool During Difficult Conversations

January 19, 2018

As a leader, having difficult conversations is part of the job. Whether it’s discussing an employee’s less than acceptable work performance, having to tell your team they have to work overtime, or announcing an unpopular change, difficult conversations are just part of the leader package. Having these tough conversations can often lead to heightened emotions from both yourself and the people you are speaking with. One thing that separates good leaders from bad leaders is how they handle these strenuous conversations.

Below are some suggestions on how you can keep your cool during stressful conversations.

  • Take a deep breath.

    When you start to notice yourself getting tense, focus on your breathing. There’s a reason people are told to count to ten when they are feeling angry or stressed; it can help you keep yourself centered and focused on the important details rather than your emotion. Or, try the "box breathing" method.

  • Be mindful of your non-verbal cues.

    Clenched fists and gritted teeth can send a defensive and threatening message to the people you are speaking with, so try to keep your body tension-free. Sitting still can make emotions build up. When possible, try to have the difficult conversation in a room that allows both you and the other person to walk around and be mobile, if necessary.

  • Take a break.

    If you find yourself in a conversation that is full of tension and quickly going off course, it is okay to pause the conversation or revisit it at a later time. This will allow both parties the time to process their emotions and rejoin the conversation with a clearer head. If you find yourself in this situation, excuse yourself for a moment. Get a cup of coffee, go to the restroom, or if needed, reschedule the meeting for another day.

  • Be prepared to handle the other person’s emotions.

    If you begin to sense that the conversation is getting tense and emotions are heightening, you are likely not the only one who is feeling this way. It may seem like a good idea to tell the person you are speaking with to use some of the tricks mentioned above, but nobody likes to be told to take a breath or calm down. Instead, validate the other person’s feelings by saying “it seems to me that you are upset, help me understand why.” In certain situations, you may need to let the other person vent. Yelling back is never a good idea and it will only escalate the problem. Though it may not be easy, sometimes the best thing you can do during stressful conversations is to sit and listen. Here are more tips to become a more emotionally intelligent leader.

Nobody likes to have difficult conversations with their co-workers or subordinates, and, if not handled correctly, they can quickly spiral out of control and result in strained work relationships and uncomfortable situations. Being able to keep your cool is a strength that good leaders possess. Being mindful of yourself and the situation can help you better navigate these conversations in the future.


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Cassandra Walter Cassandra Walter is a Consulting Associate located at PSI's Pittsburgh office. She holds a master's degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology. She works with clients across many different industries, including manufacturing, retail, customer service, and healthcare. Her areas of expertise include providing training and support for PSI’s applicant tracking system, as well as assisting clients with requests and questions regarding tools and processes.