When groups face challenges in which there are disagreements, high stakes, and/or resource constraints, conversations can get heated. In times as these, it may happen that emotions run high, language becomes loaded, and individuals present as verbally and even physically threatening. Multiple times, I’ve facilitated a meeting where someone has actually gotten out of their seat and moved towards me, gesticulating with energy and anger.
How can a facilitator or a participant “lower the heat” when necessary, i.e. change the tone to a more rational, deliberate, inclusive, and thoughtful one? Here are a few ideas.
Use the dispassionate voice
Do you remember the voice that you might have used with a toddler or a teenager in a rage? Have you used your affect and words to project control, calm, and empathy?
This is the voice I channel and that I coach others to use in overheated situations. Think of a police officer that yells at you for texting; your immediate response may be defensive. In contrast, imagine that she calmly says she is worried because she saw you texting and notices that you have children in the car; your natural reaction may then be to feel contrite.
Try using a voice that is dispassionate; that portrays strength but not agression; and is rational, deliberate, and direct. As difficult as it may be in a moment like this, tap into empathy not anger, like the calm police officer.
Name it and rephrase
What should you do when someone uses language that seems excessively harsh, judgmental, or otherwise disruptive to constructive discussion? Consider naming the language the person used, calmly, in a detached tone, and suggest an alternative. For example, “You said that Amy meant to call a meeting when key participants couldn’t be there; could we say, without accusing or inferring intent, that when Amy set the meeting at this time, key participants couldn’t attend?”
Suggest a time out
If you are “on the balcony”, i.e. watching the intensity and heat of the room escalate without engaging yet, you might be able to suggest a change in process that will reduce the tension. For example, you can propose taking a break or returning to the contentious subject at a meeting in the future. Sometimes an even more subtle intervention works to interrupt a heated exchange, such as asking to hear from those who haven’t spoken yet, or turning to what is written in the notes to focus on language.
In the heat of an emotional or difficult conversation, it’s difficult to adjust the temperature, but often appreciated by those who are unable to do so themselves.