Many have noted Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s incredible calm throughout an intense and sometimes challenging confirmation hearing. This is a calm that she has, undoubtedly, honed over decades — and it’s not easy.
For many people, stress may cause a flood of adrenaline that makes it hard to remain still and poised. It can also affect our complex thinking and rational decision making — which, in turn, may cause us to say and do things we later regret.
Learning to manage your emotions throughout tough conversations can help you remain professional no matter what you face and allow you to gain important information that can be gleaned in hard conversations.
When you experience stress, a few things happen automatically.
First, you get a flood of adrenaline. This makes your heart race and can cause you to feel anxious and jittery.
Second, the parts of your brain that are less helpful to immediate physical protection get a little muted. Most relevant, the part associated with complex thinking and rational decision making gets dialed down a bit.
These responses are designed to protect you from physical danger. They give you the energy and focus to protect yourself.
This may be very helpful if you need to run away from a predator but less helpful in a conversation with your boss or a co-worker.
In addition, research shows that humans are usually hard-wired for empathy. We tend to experience the feelings of those we’re interacting with or even just seeing.
For me, if I’m watching a football game and see someone get tackled, I’ll wince. If I see someone across the room laughing really hard, I’ll likely smile or laugh, even if I have no idea what they’re laughing about.
Thus, even if I’m not upset or feeling stressed myself when a person walks into my office who is furious or distraught, I will likely begin to feel some of that stress response. It will affect me in the same way it’s affecting them: I’ll get a surge of adrenaline and a suppression of my complex thinking and decision making.
What that means is that in a tough conversation, many people find it difficult to control their bodies. They may fidget, tap their pen, or keep looking at the door for a quick escape. Plus, they may have trouble thinking of what to say or may blurt out things that aren’t well thought-out or appropriate.
For many folks, losing their cool gives them a sense of embarrassment. Most of us don’t want to lose our temper at work or say ill-considered or unprofessional things. The inability to maintain our emotional equilibrium may also affect our success at work. Plus, it can hurt others who may be coming to us for help.
If someone is upset about something that I did, and I can’t stop playing with my pen or glancing at my watch, I may leave them feeling that I don’t care about what they’re saying.
Imagine an employee coming to a co-worker to say that they were offended by the other referring to a neighbor as “crazy.”
They explain that they’ve been living with depression for many years and have family members with schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Referring to people as ‘crazy’ is hurtful and makes me feel like I can’t trust you to be respectful of me and the people I love,” they say.
That can be a stressful conversation. The person being confronted may experience many emotions.
For example, they may feel embarrassed, defensive, angry, ashamed, misunderstood, or frustrated — or maybe all of those in rapid succession. Their hands may start shaking, or they may start tapping their foot to manage their increased energy. “That’s not what I meant at all!” they might blurt. “You weren’t even listening to me!”
Though many may relate to this reaction, it’s not the most professional response. Plus, it may seem as if injury is being added to insult. The person who came to their co-worker in pain may leave feeling worse.
In this scenario, the co-worker who was being confronted also missed important information from their peer. What might be a better term to use? Are there other things they’ve said that may have been seen as problematic?
Reacting impulsively and defensively may also make it less likely for the co-worker to come to their peer if further concerns arise.
To maintain an empathetic and positive work environment, it’s important that everyone feels comfortable voicing their concerns and that everyone knows that concerns will be addressed in a respectful manner.
Keeping your cool may allow you to navigate tough conversations with greater poise and also get key information you need. Here are some ideas of things to try when conversations get heated.
When things are heating up, a simple first step is to remember to breathe.
Taking a deep, slow breath through the nose and out through the mouth has been shown to increase brain function and calm your nervous system.
You can try many breathing techniques, but one that I particularly like is box breathing. If you want to give it a try, these are the steps you can follow:
- Picture a square in front of you.
- Breathe in for a count of four as you imagine traveling up one side of the square.
- Hold for a count of four as you travel across.
- Breathe out for four counts as you travel down the other side.
- Hold for four as you complete the square.
- Repeat for about 5 minutes or as long as you’re comfortable.
It can also be helpful to write the word “Breathe” on the top of your notebook if you know you’ll be having a tough conversation.
Name your feeling
Simply checking in with yourself to identify and acknowledge the emotion you feel can help you feel more in control of your emotions.
Some people remember this as, “Name it to tame it.”
It’s best to do this even before things get heated. For example, if you notice that you’re starting to breathe a bit more rapidly, try thinking about why that is. For instance, you may say:
- “Hmm, my breathing is getting a bit faster. I’m probably feeling stressed right now because this is a hard conversation.”
- “I’m getting sad about everything she’s going through.”
Engage your senses
Consciously engaging your sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing helps pull you into the present moment and calm you.
When you’re faced with a difficult or heated conversation, try taking a second to notice things around you like:
- the colors in the picture on the wall
- the smell of coffee from the next room
- the feel of the desk in front of you
Some people use grounding techniques like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which asks you to name:
- 5 things you can see
- 4 you can touch
- 3 you can hear
- 2 you can smell
- 1 you can taste
Sometimes what the person is saying can feel upsetting or attacking. You may feel an urge to defend yourself or stop them from saying things that you know aren’t true or are distorted.
This usually backfires. People find it difficult to listen if they don’t feel heard themselves.
What’s often more helpful is to let them talk and actively listen, trying to understand what they’re saying.
One idea I’ve used is to pretend to be a reporter whose job it is to write a story later about what the person said. For me, this strategy helps pull me out of the stress of the moment and forces me to think about what the person is sharing.
Maybe this technique can work for you, too. If not, Psych Central put together a guide on becoming a better listener that you may be interested in.
Take a break
It’s good to remember that sometimes it’s necessary and absolutely OK to walk away.
It’s best to do it before you’re feeling really frustrated or upset or when you start to notice that the above techniques aren’t working to slow your heart rate.
In this situation, it’s OK to simply say, “Thanks for sharing this. I want to hear more about it, but give me just a minute to digest it first. I’ll come talk with you later this afternoon.”
In doing so, you acknowledge the importance of what your co-worker has brought up with you, but give yourself the time and space to think about it and return to the conversation in a calm, empathetic, and likely more productive manner.
It’s natural to feel emotional responses to hard conversations, but learning to manage our emotions in a healthy way can help us stay present and professional, support those who’ve come to us with challenges, and ensure that we receive the information we need to be successful.
If you’d like help remembering these steps, you can download an infographic here.