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De-escalating Difficult Conversations

When you embark on team building, it isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes groups form hard-to-break cliques. In other cases, your best efforts to develop team cohesiveness end up surfacing difficult and hurtful conversations. In a recent Open Office Chat, a group of trainers shared their tips and techniques for de-escalating difficult conversations.

Be Transparent

Before we delve into these best practices, I want to share an “umbrella tip” [I suppose that’s not a thing, but it ought to be]. An umbrella tip is an over-arching tip that should apply to all the other suggestions. The tip is to be transparent every step of the way. That is, explain WHY you’re doing what you’re doing. If you’re training adults, understand that they want (need) to be in control. They want to know the plan and understand your reasoning. Whether you’re setting ground rules, taking a break, or introducing a new activity, explain it, simply and clearly. In the middle of an activity, if things go awry, you might say, “Well, this didn’t go as planned,” or “What I anticipated is xyz. Together, perhaps we can explore how we got to where we are, what we can learn from it, and what we can do differently next time.”

Set Clear Ground Rules

Now, back to the tips for de-escalating difficult conversations. First-time trainers often learn the basics about establishing ground rules:

  • Have participants helps set the rules, to build buy-in
  • Post the agreed-upon rules
  • Fill in rules that help people feel safe

And yet, as conversations heat up and emotions boil over, trainers and facilitators often see those well-laid rules get tossed aside.

Ground Rules Ignored

Skilled facilitators have a handful of strategies for those instances when conversations come to a boiling point and rules are disregarded. In most instances, the key is to help break participants out of their mood and reset the group’s energy. Perhaps some of these techniques will work for you:

Make Participants Feel Heard

Sometimes frustrations mount when participants sense that others aren’t hearing their contributions, thoughts, and feelings. To ensure that participants’ sentiments have been communicated clearly, try these.

  • Record ideas on a flip chart — ask the speaker if the notes clearly represent what they said.
  • Repeat what you heard — restate an idea or argument so that the speaker knows their thinking was communicated accurately.
  • Distribute “OUCH” cards — cut out a handful of cards and spread them on a table or give every participant a card. If they hear something hurtful, the card can give them an opportunity to react, without interrupting the speaker. At the same time, the speaker can see that their words may have had an unintended impact and be able to address that promptly.
  • Create a Parking Lot — record ideas that require further discussion on a flipchart or whiteboard. Before disbursing, develop a plan for revisiting those topics at a later time.

While these tips may help your group communicate their thoughts, they can’t ensure a calm conversation, especially when participants are truly engaged and invested in the topic.

Alter the Process if Discussions Don’t Go as Anticipated

Despite best intentions and excellent facilitation skills, conversations may not go as intended. When this happens, revert to the transparency tip above to de-escalate conflict. Take a page from the Getting to Yes approach and separate the content of the conversation from the process. If you’re getting hung up on the content of a conversation, take a pause and talk explicitly about the process.

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Explain that these conversations can be difficult but you have a shared interest in developing a stronger understanding of one another’s perspectives.  Ask the group, how can we have this conversation more productively? Then, develop and commit to a process before diving back into the difficult content. For instance, you might explore some of the following ideas will be a way to move forward.

  • Develop a team mission statement: Encourage the group to think of their team as if it were an individual. You may be able to get people on the same page by asking, What is OUR mission? What’s OUR goal? What are we trying to accomplish? What do WE value?  This process will help surface the shared values that hold the team together.
  • Switch out the groups: Put people in different, smaller groups. Conduct small group discussions and have those groups record and later share what they learned from one another when they reconvene as a large group.
  • Go one-on-one: If a specific individual is particularly challenging, consider addressing them directly during a break, to discuss a productive process for future interactions with the group. If conversations continue to be confrontational, consider bringing a supervisor into the discussion.
  • Utilize coaching techniques:  Adopt a coaching style and ask participants to articulate what they are hearing, seeing or experiencing. Ask:  How are you feeling? What is this bringing up for you? What’s behind the emotions?
  • Uncover emotions with image decks: To inspire conversations about feelings, pull out a deck of image cards like Climer Cards or Ulead Cards. Ask participants to select a card that represents how they’re currently feeling or hope to feel.

Use Breaks to De-Escalate Difficult Conversations

When all else fails . . . or even before it fails, know when it’s time to take a break. Be sure to explain that taking a break does not mean you’re abandoning or running from the conversation. Instead, think of it like giving your kid a timeout (or taking one for yourself). On occasion, adults need a moment to cool off as well, to collect themselves and organize their thinking. If and when you take a break, revert to the transparency tip above. Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. Your time out can consist of any of these:

  • Play music to shift the vibe — pick a tune that will calm or energize the group, as needed.
  • Introduce a journaling break — encourage participants to jot a few notes about how they’re feeling.
  • Take a stroll — shift the group’s energy by altering their surroundings. Encouraging participants to walk around the room or building, or stroll outdoors.
  • Set out a Question Box — invite participants to write a question, then stand up, and insert it into the box. This allows them to move about, if they’re uncomfortable (physically or emotionally), and also share their thought anonymously.

Team Activities to Help Avoid Escalations in the First Place

If you’re onboarding a new crew of students or employees bound to spend a great deal of time together, or if you fear cliques may form, try an onboarding activity to help your group establish strong relationships from the outset. Relationships formed early will help them navigate future challenges with ease, avoiding the need to de-escalate difficult conversations.

  • Fiction or Fact? — This popular game also goes by “Two Truths and a Lie.” Each player thinks up 3 statements about themselves, only two of which are truthful. Others need to guess which statement is fiction. The quick activity allows players to share fun facts about themselves and learn about others’.
  • What do we have in common? — Divide your group into small teams of 3-5. Challenge them to find 3 (or more) things you all have in common — interests, experiences, qualities, etc. The activity helps the team members build bonds and appreciate their similarities.
  • Shut out — This one can be intense, and incredibly memorable. Have a team designate a “leader.” After they do, request that the leader step out of the room. In their absence, instruct the rest of the group to shut that person out when they re-enter the room, using body language, lack of eye contact, as well as not listening, speaking, or acknowledging, their presence. After a few minutes, take time to debrief the experience. Ask: how did it feel to exclude or be excluded, and to be an insider or outsider? How do you hope to be treated in your new surroundings? Be sure to take good care of the “leader” so they don’t feel any residual discomfort!
  • Team Mission Statement — Also described above, use this activity to address difficulty as it arises or at the start of a session, to get off on a good start.

Final thoughts on De-Escalating Difficult Conversations

In the best of worlds, we’d eliminate conflict and wouldn’t need to de-escalate difficult conversations. Unfortunately, that’s not human nature. The best we can do is be prepared with a handful of tools and skills to manage hard discussions as they happen. Hopefully, when we establish ground rules, take breaks as needed, instill strong communication skills, and facilitate with honesty and transparency, we can minimize the negative effects and use the experiences to grow, learn, and develop greater trust.

Read More on De-Escalating Difficult Conversations

The Art of Difficult Conversations

Active Listening Exercises

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