How to Handle High-Stress Situations and Difficult Conversations

Stress and conversations often go hand-in-hand. The topic may be difficult, the person you’ll be talking to may be difficult and you may just want to avoid the whole thing. But whatever the issue delaying a tough conversation may not be a wise choice. Whatever the problem, it may get worse over time making talking about it even tougher.

The issue to be discussed may be personal, possibly cast the person in a bad light or simply bad news. The person may be someone you just don’t like or want to deal with or it may be someone close to you. Whatever the variables, an article from Lifehack by Dominic DeMartini has some suggestions.

In these situations conversations, can end in one of two extremes: someone can go quiet and avoid conflict or become loud, physical and possibly violent. Neither of these outcomes is good for either party.

  • If you avoid the conversation it won’t allow you to express your thoughts, ideas or feelings and the problem will continue to fester.
  • Arguing or becoming aggressive is ineffective and counterproductive.

You need to find middle ground where you can have a conversation and talk things out in a productive manner to achieve a desired outcome. To do that you need to prepare because a high-stakes conversation could turn out for the worse if not handled properly.

What outcome do you want?

  • Do you want your emotionally distraught client to understand the case isn’t going well so it’s time to settle for whatever he can get?
  • Do you want your hard-charging business owner client to understand that by going full speed ahead with litigation his business may be heading into a buzz saw?
  • Do you want your partner/boss to allow you to work fewer hours without jeopardizing your future at the firm?

After deciding what you want from the conversation, keep this front and center in your mind so you won’t wander off into left field, clam up or become hostile.

Prepare what you want to say, whether that’s in the form of notes, a diagram or a script. Don’t go into the high-stakes conversation without knowing what you want to say. Otherwise you risk blabbering whatever comes to mind first or not saying anything at all and the conversation will get off on the wrong foot.

Depending on the topic you should take the approach that you’re trying to help, whether it’s to improve a situation or improve how the person is approaching it. Depending on the situation you might talk about your own problems (or problems that an unnamed client had) in coping with a comparable issue, discuss the lessons learned, demonstrate that you’re not having the talk to show how superior you are or how inferior the other person is. You’re also not there to be critical, hurt the other person’s feeling or be disrespectful.

You need to “game plan” and think about how to respond to what you think the other person is likely to say, but also think about what you’ll do if something unexpected is brought up. You may want to practice this by literally talking to yourself (you may want to close the door first) or rehearse with a friend or colleague. Try to use your notes/diagram/script as little as possible and commit to memory what to say.

During the conversation really focus on what’s being said, how it’s being said, actively listen to the other party and try to create a positive result from a bad situation. If you’re prepared you should be able to better steer the conversation where you want it to go, making it easier and more likely you’ll reach the desired outcome.