How to Control Your Emotions During a Difficult Conversation

For most of us, just the thought of a difficult conversation causes anxiety and frustration. But there are times they need to happen, and as with most difficult things, it’s good to go in with a plan.

One of the biggest issues people face in these moments is dealing with a rush of emotions. The part of the brain that perceives a threat triggers a fight-or-flight response that doesn’t leave much room for rational thought. And before you know it, you find yourself in a conversation that’s on the wrong track. Here are some of the ways top leaders maintain their presence of mind even during the most tension-filled discussions:

Be aware of your body. It’s not just the mind but also the body that responds to a perceived threat. If your heart’s racing, your first job is to calm your body. Standing up and walking around helps to activate the thinking part of your brain.

Learn to anchor yourself. When you’re struggling internally it’s easy to miss out on some of what’s being said, and in a difficult conversation you don’t want to miss a word. A simple anchoring exercise can help. Place your feet firmly on the ground and notice how the floor feels on the bottom of your shoes. This simple technique can help you stay literally grounded and keep your focus.

Label the emotion. When it feels like a swirl of emotions is coming at you quickly, distance yourself by labeling what you’re feeling. Labeling allows you to see your thoughts and feelings for what they are and put space between yourself and your emotions.

Don’t allow transference to occur. If you’re dealing with someone with a volatile personality, it’s important not to let their emotional dysfunction transfer onto you. If they’re angry, be a witness to their anger—don’t take it on.

Listen to understand. A leader listens to learn something new. The single most important way to foster that kind of listening is to shift your internal response from “I understand” to “Help me understand.” Everything else will follow from that.

Make time to process. In the heat of a difficult conversation, most of us have said things we later regret. Let the person who is venting have their say. Don’t react with blame or excuses or rejoinders. Instead, slow down the process by responding, “It’s important that I understand what you just said, so I’m going to take time to digest it all and I will get back to you soon.” Giving yourself time to process your emotions will help make your feelings less intense.

Let’s face it: difficult conversations are the norm, especially between people at work. But how you react to the circumstances and content of the conversation is what makes the difference between a good leader and a great leader.

Lead from within: Human interactions are complex, but by simply taking responsibility for our own behavior,  we can gain at least some influence over the problem.

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After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR,, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

  1. Denny Nguyen

    24. Jul, 2020

    These are great advises. As managers and leaders, difficult conversations are absolutely unavoidable. We have to do them, regrettably, too often. These are great suggestions to help us control ourselves, control the conversation and control the situation. As part of reading this, it’s important to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for what’s to come. That will allow us to be more ready when the situation escalates.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      25. Jul, 2020


      Thank you for your comment.

      Having any conversation can be difficult, having to have a difficult one makes it harder, but if you know what you want to achieve and you can come with empathy and understanding, there is a way to have the difficult conversation successful. What do you think?


      Reply to this comment

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