How to Defuse Tense Conversations

By learning how to handle interactions with high-emotion, you can work toward solutions

Dot Mishoe at her desk.
Dot Mishoe, director of the Student Disability Access Office, listens to a co-worker.

As the director of the Student Disability Access Office, Dot Mishoe works with parents, faculty and staff to ensure every student has access to a full Duke experience.

To do this, she sometimes has sensitive conversations about accommodations.

“In our line of work, our world revolves around communicating,” Mishoe said. “We have a duty to make every effort to communicate with one another in a manner that’s productive and non-confrontational.”

A skill she’s used often is the ability to turn conversations that may be emotional into productive ones. In August, Mishoe sharpened her touch in this area with the help the Communicating with Diplomacy and Tact course taught by Learning & Organization Development, a unit in Duke Human Resources.

L&OD will offer the introductory sessions of the course October 16 and November 8. Based on some lessons from the class, here’s how you can stay cool when emotions heat up.

Be Aware of Body Language

Don Shortslef, a senior practitioner with Learning & Organization Development who teaches Communicating with Diplomacy and Tact, said that only a fraction of our communication comes through words.

Our tone and, especially, our body language can shape the conversation often more than what we say.

Body language is often an unconscious choice. But Shortslef points out that it’s important to think about the message you’re sending. Sitting up straight, making eye contact and smiling when appropriate can show that you’re engaged with the conversation. Blinking often or pursing lips can signal that you’re stressed or uncomfortable.

“How we carry ourselves says so much,” Shortslef said.

Be an Active Listener

Perhaps the most important skill when trying to find common ground in tense situations is to be a good listener. And as both Shortslef and Mishoe point out, it’s a skill that takes time to develop and requires action on the part of the listener.

One helpful tactic they recommend is to hear what the other person is saying and then paraphrase the message back to them.

This serves two purposes. By repeating their thoughts, it shows the other person that you’re listening.

“You are validating what the person speaking is feeling so that the person knows you understand what they are saying,” Mishoe said.

It can also ensure that you’ve correctly heard what they’ve expressed.

“It’s a way to check for understanding,” Shortslef said. “It lets them know that you are heard them.”

Know When to Be Quiet

Not all conversations need to be two-way.

Both Shortslef and Mishoe point out that there are situations when staying mostly silent is the right call.

The most common scenario is when the person on the other side of the conversation is upset and simply wants to vent. In this instance, listening is the best option.

“Sometimes people just want to talk, to let their voice be heard,” Shortslef said. “You don’t want to interrupt them. You have to fight the urge to respond or try to solve the problem. It’s about self-control.”

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