Recently, I found myself in the Whole Foods parking lot on a bright Sunday morning with a man on an adult-sized tricycle screaming at me for seemingly no reason about my parking job. It was horrible. (I’d barely woken up.) I am also not an especially confrontational person, and being yelled at is probably the most embarrassing and horrible thing I could imagine.
When I was a kid, my mom read a book called How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. The techniques outlined in this book were ones that completely changed my parents’ life, and thus mine. The book is about effectively communicating with your kids, and teaching them to communicate with you. My parents were, and are, an amazingly effective conflict resolution team. When problems inevitably occur, they go into damage control mode. They remain calm, ask questions, nod, and appear to listen closely. Though obviously this was exhausting as a teenager, lately I find myself reverting back to, and actually using, the techniques that they used on me for so many years in the workplace, my personal life, and the Whole Foods parking lot, because as it turns out, real life is full of conflict.
Here are several parent-approved techniques that can help you de-escalate a difficult or high-stress conversation.
That said, while this type of conflict resolution is good for smaller misunderstandings and miscommunications, it goes without saying that if you encounter someone spewing hateful or racist dialogue, do not be a bystander! There are many different techniques you can use to be ally, some of which are detailed in this helpful article.
1. Breathe. No matter how upset the other person is, remaining calm is your most tactful move. Take a few deep breaths.
2. Get on their level and look them in the eye. One of the most important things you can do in an uncomfortable environment is to physically get on someone’s level and look them in the eye. If they’re standing up, stand so that you can see them, or if they’re sitting down, sit down. Growing up, everyone in my family had to sit on the carpet, so that we were all equals in conversation. (This is especially important when you’re dealing with small children, because (obviously) it’s harder for children to read your expression when you’re standing.)
3. Acknowledge that the other person is upset. Sometimes this means preemptively apologizing. (I apologized for my parking to tricycle guy.) This shows that you’re paying attention. Acknowledging what the other person is feeling makes them feel seen. You can say things like, “You sound upset. I want to really understand where you’re coming from. Can you explain to me exactly what you’re feeling?”
4. Listen. Then you have to listen. And this is hard. Even when you REALLY want to interrupt/tell them how wrong they are/why they’re an asshole/your parking is fine, just listen. If they stop talking, ask them if there’s anything else they need to say or get off their chest, to make sure that they’ve been given enough of an opportunity to explain themselves.
5. The most important thing. When the other person has finished talking, follow up what they’ve said with something affirmative. “Thank you for explaining that to me,” or “I appreciate you sharing that.” Then say, “What I think I hear you saying is…” and REPEAT BACK TO THEM EVERYTHING THEY JUST SAID. Even though I’m in my twenties, my father still does this to me when I get upset. “What I hear you saying is…” Doing this makes the other person feel heard, it shows that you’ve actually listened to them, instead of just waiting for your chance to talk. It creates breathing room. Now you are having a conversation, instead of screaming, or crying, or having someone write you out of their will.
6. Ask them what their solution is. Ask the other person what their ideal solution to the conflict would be, which again illustrates to the both of you what they want from you/the situation. You can try and come to an agreement or understanding, or maybe you don’t. But at least you have made the other person articulate exactly what they need.
The tough thing about dealing with conflict in this particular way is that it’s not about one person being right, or sticking it to the man — and this is precisely why it’s often difficult. “Talking so that your child/ boyfriend/mom/friend/parking-lot-antagonist will listen” is not about having an upper hand. Instead, it’s about trying to create an environment where people feel listened to, understood, and heard so that you can thoughtfully discuss solutions. Which often sucks, because sometimes there isn’t a compromise to be made.
However, hopefully you can do so in a way that feels polite and respectful, rather than upsetting. The point being, Whole Foods parking lot guy calmed down after I “talked so he would listen & listened so he would talk.” He didn’t apologize for his poor behavior, but his friend did. And then I found another parking spot.
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