Have you ever had that sinking feeling when you realise that the words that just came out of your mouth are ill-conceived and likely to create conflict, hurt, or resistance?
I have. Too many times.
The problem when this happens is that the purpose and meaning of what you are saying gets lost in emotion. Instead of the recipient of your words hearing and understanding your intent or meaning, they respond based on how the words touched them emotionally; and from that moment on, they are only thinking about how you have made them feel, not what is said.
In the words of the great Maya Angelou:
"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Having the right impact is critical to building trustful relationships and strong, constructive feedback relationships with the people in your circle; especially with your team in a business setting.
So how can you tell if your words have triggered a less positive emotion? Once you realise, what should you do? What tricks can you use in future to mitigate the chance of the wrong words slipping out?
Identifying the response
Through active listening techniques (even when you're doing the talking), you should be focused on the face of the listener/s and looking out for changes in their expression, both in their face and eyes, changes to their body language (like arms crossed); and you may even be able to feel tension radiating from them. If you stay in tune with the listener/s, you should be able to identify when the vibe of the conversation changes and/or the listener/s stop listening.
Consider your options
Once you realise that the listener/s' response to the message is no longer positive, most importantly don't panic. In a panicked state you might make things worse; by trying to back-pedal or cover it up with "nice" words; or pretend not to notice; or tell the person they have taken you the wrong way and shouldn't be getting upset.
Instead, consider your options. Depending on the type of response from the listener/s, you have a few from which to choose.
Before you decide; one of the most effective methods you can use is a pause. Allow silence to settle for 2-3 seconds, take three deep breaths. This allows you to more clearly identify:
Whether the listener/s are actually responding negatively, or whether it was fleeting and/or you misread the signs
Have you 'lost' the listener/s completely, or is the conversation salvageable; and
What are your next steps.
So the key three options are these:
Refocus brings you back to the topic and core reason for the discussion. It is often in the dialogue surrounding the discussion about the core issue that we find ourselves in the diplomacy mire. After a pause in the conversation, bringing the focus back to the purpose of the discussion can have the effect of redirecting the listener/s thoughts away from the ill-delivered section of the conversation to the nub of the message. This method is likely to work most effectively when the point of the discussion is not an emotional/personal one.
For example: you started a discussion with an employee to remind them that they need to complete a leave form and provide a medical certificate; however, in the conversation, it drifted to the reason for their absence, during which you note that they are 'always taking days off' which results in a negative response from the employee. So, you pause, then reiterate that you would like them to provide a leave form and medical certificate by the end of the week.
Explore is the method you use when you want to draw out from the listener/s what they are feeling about the conversation, and to potentially discuss it in more depth, so you can better understand their perspective. Even the most perceptive of us can misinterpret a response; as we can sometimes apply our own meaning and perspective to a situation or reaction, assuming we know what the listener/s are thinking / feeling when this is not the case. So to explore, you would ask open-ended questions such as, 'how are you feeling about what I have just said'. Their response will indicate to you which part of your conversation struck an emotional chord.
Continuing the sick leave example; if the employee responds by saying that they think you are being unfair by saying they are 'always taking days off' because until recently they hadn't taken days off at all. This indicates to you what the trigger was for the negative response and provides you with the opportunity to further explore the issue. You can say something like; 'I acknowledge that you have only recently started taking regular sick days' - this will help diffuse the negative feelings the employee has about your earlier statement. Then follow with an open question like 'can you tell me what has changed recently?' The employee may share their issues and from here you can offer your support, or they may tell you that they don't want to discuss it. Either way, you have taken some of the sting out of your earlier statement and shown that you care. At this stage, you can use the refocus method to remind the employee of the point of the conversation.
Defer is best used when you feel that the conversation is not salvageable. The emotions you have evoked in the listener/s are so strong that no matter what you say from here, they will not be listening, or will respond negatively. The defer method does not mean that you will not revisit the conversation; but simply that some time needs to pass before you can resume the discussion; allow you and the listener/s to consider what has been said and how they feel about it.
If the employee who was on sick leave was to respond angrily, arms crossed, voice raised; it is unlikely that any further conversation will be constructive. On this basis, it would be best to end the conversation with something like 'let's talk about this tomorrow when you submit your leave form and medical certificate'. This informs the employee that you wish to continue the conversation and when, and brings the focus back to the point of the conversation. When you resume the discussion, it may be appropriate to acknowledge that your comments may have been provoking and seek to better understand their response via the explore method.
Minimising future miscommunication
The most adept communicators put their foot in it every now and again, so unless you never talk to anyone again, the likelihood is that at some point you will say something less constructive and have to manage it; however, there are some simple tricks you can use to limit the frequency of this occurring.
Planning - if you suspect that a conversation has the potential to be emotive, it is best to plan what you want to achieve from the discussion; what approach you will take (e.g. conciliatory, direct, consultative); and how you are going to relay the message.
Practise - develop and practise removing inflammatory language from your communication style. 'You' statements sound accusatory and are bound to prompt a defensive response from the listener/s. Instead of saying 'you did that thing', say 'when that thing happened, I felt'. Using absolutes is also likely to evoke a negative or defensive response. Absolutes include 'always' and 'never'.
Mindset - maintaining a calm mindset when communicating will help you stay focused on what you are saying, contain your emotions. and keep your tone of voice level and non-provoking. Humans mirror each other, so displaying your emotions when you communicate is likely to prompt a similar response form the listener/s. For example if you are aggressive, the response you get will likely be aggressive.
Speed and space - the pace at which you speak and the pauses you place in between words and concepts will help prevent you from simply blabbing out the first thing that comes to mind. Creating spaces between words and phrases allows time for the concepts to sink in for the listener/s; and adds an air of importance to what you are saying.
Timing and location - consider the timing of the conversation and where it is being conducted. While in some situations "waiting for the appropriate time" is not possible, usually it is better to forewarn the listener/s when there is to be a difficult conversation, so they don't feel like they have been ambushed. End of the day discussions are often the best. Where you hold conversations can also impact the response. Always try to have confronting conversations in the appropriate location. If it is a one-on-one conversation, it should be held in a private place away from the sight and hearing of others; and if it is a group discussion, ensuring that individuals are not singled out in the group environment is important.
Overall, communication is critical. Words can have lasting impacts for both the listener/s and the speaker (positive and negative), so choosing your words, tone and delivery is crucial to obtaining the desired outcome.
Remember when in a tricky communication situation, the best option available in that moment is to press pause and take a breath.