Imagine a difficult discussion on a sensitive topic with someone who really, really doesn’t want to talk about it– that’s a bit like locking yourself in a room with a malfunctioning thermostat. Things can go from cool to hot and back again in no time. Problem is, the more heated the discussion gets, the more difficult it will be to come to any satisfactory resolution.

The solution is to keep the emotional temperature at a point where rational arguments can actually be heard and also make a difference. Here’s a simple skill-building exercise with that goal in mind.

  1. Just for a moment, picture a situation from your past in which you became very upset. As you do, pay attention to what is happening in your body. Is there tension in your neck or shoulders? Does your heart rate increase? Are there odd sensations in your stomach or chest? Is your pulse fast, your mouth dry? Or any other sensation of discomfort that you notice. Just note what and where in your body it appears, then move on. When you’re finished, picture yourself driving a car or riding your bicycle. You come up to a stop sign and stop. Hint: It’s time to change direction.
  2. Now, visualize yourself in an environment where you normally feel calm, safe, protected. Doesn’t matter what that situation happens to be, only that it produces those feelings. Focus on your breathing: Slow and steady, with a full exhale before taking another breath. Pay attention to what happens in your body: to the tension in your neck and shoulders, to your heart rate, and in your stomach. You should feel tension begin to drain away. Practice that a few times: Letting the tension build, then allowing it — yes, allowing it — to subside.
  3. Once you learn to recognize the sensations associated with heated emotion, you can monitor them and take steps as needed to cool things down a bit. One way is to become less confrontational in tone and gesture. Another is to emphasize the points where you and the other person agree rather than differ. And of course, you can always take a time out if need be.

Don’t forget” the best way to get calm someone else is to start by calming yourself.

The more you practice, the easier it will be to do the same in a tense situation. You’ll find yourself able to stay focused, attentive, receptive. The other party, curiously enough, is apt to mirror the changes in you, by becoming calmer themselves.

Which makes a satisfactory resolution that much more likely.

This post belongs to Tips for Difficult Discussions