Recently a work colleague was on the tail end of tirade directed at her, conducted over the phone. My colleague, Sarah, had been supporting a client through a particularly difficult time. There was complexity in the case and the stakes were high, as such client emotions were fragile and the client's relationships under pressure. On the end of the phone was the mother of the client, Pam, who was ostensibly confirming her availability to support Sarah’s client, her daughter. In fact, the mother of the client, was also navigating a push pull of responsibilities and was overwhelmed with what was being asked of her. In that moment, Pam overflowed onto Sarah. Whilst not abusive, her tirade towards Sarah was aggressive and highly defensive. Sarah didn’t engage in the aggression and quietly listened, agreeing where possible. As such the conversation de-escalated quite quickly. By the end of the call, Pam was back in control of herself and the call ended amicably. Sarah was shaken and questioned whether she should have 'stood up' for herself, rather than being Pam's punching bag.
As part of the peer supervision that psychologists do, Sarah and I discussed this experience, specifically about whether Sarah should have done something different in this conversation. Most of us come up against situations like these, relatively regularly.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Keep yourself safe: First and foremost, consider your physical and emotional safety. If these are not in place, proceed with caution and look for ways to extricate yourself from the conversation.
2. Use silence: Silence allows you time to read the situation and make a plan if you decide to engage your point of view into the conversation or to extricate and then form a plan, if required.
3. Read the emotional state of the person engaging with you: Remember that anger is a defender. Therefore what is behind this emotion are usually feelings like vulnerability, fear, inadequacy. Look for what is not being said, and decide whether you can add value in this situation.
4. Let the emotions dissolve: If you decide to engage in the conversation and want to provide your perspective, allow as much of the emotion as possible to pass through the other person first. Then talk slowly and firmly, and keep the tone respectful.
5. Be constructive: Have a clear view of what you want to communicate. Keep it kind and listen to understand. Do not soften your feedback, as this robs the other person the opportunity to grow.
6. Debrief afterwards: Use a sympathetic listener who can constructively provide some peer coaching to help you with the next time you come up against this person or problem. This process will help you to de-stress. We can learn and grow from every interaction.
If you have had a difficult conversation and need some coaching, drop me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and we can set up a time to chat.
How do you manage tricky interactions?