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Q: How do I manage a difficult conversation in a way that is constructive and not destructive?
Focus on the non-verbal indicators. Be aware of what your body language is communicating: are you sitting with your arms folded; are you making good eye contact with the person? Notice when words do not match posture, e.g., when a person says he or she is fine, but shifts in the chair and looks at the floor.
Use active listening skills. A person is less likely to escalate if he feels heard. Thank the person for his observations and offer a brief summary of his perspective, repeating his vocabulary and any details he has offered.
Focus on the behavior, not the person. When offering feedback, keep the conversation focused on the specific behavior rather than making a broader judgement about a person’s intent. For example, say, “I want to share my concern about the accounting practices named in the report,” versus, “You made careless administrative errors.”
Model the response that you want to receive. De-escalation starts with you. Continue to maintain your composure and show respect.
Manage the pace of the conversation. If you observe that the person is getting more upset, create a pause in the conversation: “Could you excuse me for a moment? I’m going to get some water.” Even a brief break can provide time to breathe and reengage the conversation at a lower level of intensity.
Set appropriate boundaries for the conversation. Avoid letting the person dictate time constraints or allowing his or her crisis to become your crisis: “I am not leaving this meeting until I have an answer.” Instead, provide a summary of his or her concerns, and say, “You have given me important data to consider and I am grateful for your observations. We can meet again after I have had time to think over your concerns.”
Stephen Carroll, Ph.D., LCPC, is the coordinator of the Halfway House program at Saint Luke Institute.
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