You may have experienced more than once that “I shoulda said…” moment, after being hit with an unexpected comment from a friend or colleague. And – I suspect that, like me, you’ve also occasionally found yourself thinking about how you could have avoided the conflict and anger that arose from the exchange that followed.
Over the years, I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way!) that not every comment, question, request, criticism requires an immediate response. In my previous post, I suggested that it could be helpful to delay your response, if you don’t know what to say (Tip #1).
But – doesn’t politeness dictate that we need to reply quickly to avoid conversational awkwardness? And, don’t we need to defend ourselves when we feel offended by someone? Well…… maybe.
Politeness and self-defense don’t need to be tossed out in order to avoid starting the next world war. You may not even need to have the little battle that could lead to that war. Sometimes all you might need is another strategy for getting across the message that you are unhappy about what someone has just said.
One technique that often helps is to plan in advance to use this three-step NBA approach when stuck in a difficult conversation (remember to keep the anger out of your voice):
1) Notice the physical tightening signaling your stress (you may need to practice noticing);
2) Breathe deeply for a count of 3;
3) Ask a short question: “Could you give me more information about that?” or “Could you give me a minute to think about that?”
Here’s a brief example: Your boss stops by your desk as you are engrossed in doing an assigned task. You may expect that he’s going to compliment you for your hard work. Instead, he says something like, “I thought you’d be finished with that already. And, you’ll need to do that piece over again.” Recognize that familiar internal cringe? Your impulse might be to point out your hard work, let him know you did it exactly as previously instructed. Since you’re now stressed, your voice will show it and you may end up sounding argumentative. Your boss responds in kind, and the problems start.
Or you could: 1) Notice your own familiar stress signs; 2) Breathe for a count of 3 (time to regain control); 3) Ask, “Would you give me more details about what you need from me on this?” (Or substitute your own magic words like those offered in the previous post.)
What you’ve accomplished: You look and sound professional. You avoid a no-win angry debate with your boss. Your task is clarified (maybe you misunderstood?). Your boss never gets to know what you really think of him/her (rarely a good revelation on the job!). You can go home a little less stressed.
What your boss might end up learning: If you consistently meet tactlessness or criticism with quiet professionalism, your boss might just learn to modify his/her approach in reaction to your style. Even if that doesn’t happen, you have the satisfaction of not rising to the bait!
Have you discovered other strategies that work for you? How do you handle those disturbing or challenging comments that catch you by surprise? I invite you to email me to share your own techniques for managing potentially angry conversations.