How To Communicate When Things Get Heated

One of the most important determining factors in the success of a crucial conversation is the ability to create safety. When you make it safe, you create an environment where it’s possible to talk to anyone about anything.

It’s a great concept, but how does this look in the real world?

Let me put you in this situation.

You have been travelling internationally for work and just arrived at the airport, ready to go back home. As you enter the building, your heart sinks. The airport is crammed with people, the computers are down, and the employees are scrambling. The lines stretched long and moving slow. You believe there is little chance of making the flight, but you get in line and start waiting.

About an hour later the line has made an unexpected amount of progress and you believe you might make the flight. All a sudden, a woman comes across the lobby with a cart overloaded with luggage and pushes her way into the line a few people ahead. She doesn’t know who she is messing with…. But, it’s not you.

Whilst you are irritated, the guy she cut directly in front of becomes enraged.

“You get out of line!” he yells.

She refuses, “No! I have to get in line to make this flight! My kids are expecting me!”

Again, he insists, “Get out of line!”  then pushes her luggage cart.

She pushes back. He pushes back again and so on.

Finally, as the situation escalates to a peak, he shoves the cart aside, clenches his fist, and rears back ready to punch her.

Standing about five people back in line, you feel you have to get involved. In a panic, you jump between him and her. Bad idea.

His face is overcome with confusion. But then, that confusion turns into white, hot rage. His eyes bulge out of his head and he clenches his fist even tighter.

What story is he telling himself about you? Now you are the bad guy.

You realise it’s better say something than nothing! it is time for a crucial conversation.

My question to you: What would you say first? You don’t have much time!

Here’s what I would say: “You’ve been standing here in line for over an hour, that was unfair for her to cut in front of you. She shouldn’t have done that. I’ll help you solve the problem. We’ll get someone from the airport over here and we’ll work this out. It’ll be okay.”

What did I do? I created safety.

To feel psychologically safe, people need to know two things:

  1. You care about their problem.
  2. You care about them.

Once someone knows you care, they’ll let you say anything! This includes a stubborn manager or disgruntled peer. If they feel safe, they’ll listen. They may not always agree, but they’ll listen. Safety paves the way for a crucial conversation.

When people don’t feel safe in a conversation, they become silent or violent.

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